Local

Horry County regains agency office to handle domestic violence services

By ANGELA NICHOLAS

For The Sun News

Relaxing in a meeting area outside the counseling office of the Family Justice Center in Horry County are (from left) case manager Linda Collins, counselor Veronica Akong and co-executive director Vicki Bourus.
Relaxing in a meeting area outside the counseling office of the Family Justice Center in Horry County are (from left) case manager Linda Collins, counselor Veronica Akong and co-executive director Vicki Bourus.

Horry County victims of domestic violence living in a state ranked first in the nation for the number of women killed by men each year, will once again have full services available specifically aimed at addressing this crisis.

The Family Justice Center (FJC), which has been providing services in Georgetown County that includes a secure shelter where women and children can escape violence at home, opened a donated office in Myrtle Beach recently.

The Horry County office mirrors services offered in Georgetown for the last several years, including legal advocacy, case management and counseling with plans to eventually provide a secure shelter to replace one that closed in 2011.

Horry County carries an undesirable reputation when it comes to domestic violence with the highest rate of incidents in South Carolona — a state with the highest number of incidents in the U.S.

Horry County carries an undesirable reputation when it comes to domestic violence with the highest rate of incidents in South Carolona — a state with the highest number of incidents in the U.S.

Co-executive director of the FJC Vicki Bourus — who heads the nonprofit center along with Beverly Kennedy — said Horry County law enforcement statistics show approximately 7,400 domestic violence calls were fielded in 2015 as compared to Georgetown’s 274. More recently in June, the FJC served 60 victims with more than half of those victims Horry County residents.

The center served 300 individuals in 2012 and saw its numbers climb to more than 800 by 2015, Bourus said. Those numbers reflect the growing problem in South Carolina. According to a report by the Violence Policy Institute, South Carolina carries a rate of 2.32 per 100,000 women killed by men. Most die from gun violence.

Bourus said the FJC is currently the “only domestic violence agency providing free and confidential, comprehensive services” to the two-county area. The FJC model is considered a best practice in the field of criminal domestic violence prevention and intervention with a mission of reducing injuries and deaths. Victims are primarily women but are sometime men.

Prior to legal problems that caused the closing of CASA (Citizens Against Spouse Abuse), that agency operated an emergency shelter for abused women and provided services to Horry County for more than 30 years. When CASA closed, an organization called New Directions, a part of the city of Myrtle Beach’s homeless coalition, operated the Life Line program. This program replaced CASA for a couple of years before the safe house that allowed women to hide from their abusers was converted into a facility for the homeless, primarily for women and children needing assistance but not in immediate danger. City officials said at the time it was a more efficient use of resources to serve more individuals in need.

South Carolina ranks No. 1 in the nation for women killed by men - Violence Policy Center

Since that time, FJC staff have scrambled to provide services to both counties, Bourus said.

“Domestic violence is a complex, difficult problem with some danger involved,” Bourus said, adding that when the safe haven was converted to house the homeless it was “truly the end of services in Horry County for domestic violence victims.”

Bourus also said when CASA closed in Horry County, the FJC obtained the $200,000 Region 2 grant funding the Department of Social Services administers.

“We assumed responsibility for the funds that CASA had received for years,” Bourus said. She said the state only allows one agency to receive the funding. While the grant funds were inadequate to run two shelters it did allow the FJC to reinitiate program services in Horry County.

“We are the designated experts in this work and it became clear to us that we needed to move into Horry County,” she said. When a “very generous developer” donated a small office at 1339 Apache Drive in the Monticello Apartment Complex in Myrtle Beach, the agency opened part-time.

Bourus said what the agency needs now is a “call to action” to mobilize the community to help raise funding and recruit volunteers. The most immediate need is for a volunteer office manager, she said.

Qualified leadership

There is no lack of passionate leadership within the FJC. Both Bourus and Kennedy have long histories of working in the domestic violence fields.

Bourus began her career as an elementary school teacher having earned a degree from the University of Georgia. Drawn to families in need, she earned a master’s in social work from the University of South Carolina in Columbia and took a job with the Department of Social Services in the child abuse investigation unit. In 1987, she was recruited to head the women’s shelter in Greenville and has since worked exclusively in domestic violence programs. Prior to moving to Georgetown in 2011, she served for 12 years as director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Assault in Columbia providing legislative advocacy and public awareness. She became involved with FJC in 2012, which had only four employees.

1 in every 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime - Violence Policy Center

“Last year we hired our 16 th employee,” she said. “It has taken a massive effort in grant writing and seeking funds. We are a very sound organization with a board of directors that is amazing.”

Armed with an undergraduate degree in home economics and journalism from Penn State University and a law degree from Suffolk University, Kennedy gained her first experience with domestic violence when she became one of the first women to serve as a Boston police officer in 1972. For close to a decade, Kennedy worked with a system that called domestic violence “family trouble.”

“Massachusetts was one of the first states in the nation to pass domestic violence laws making it a real crime,” she said.

Earning her law degree while working with the Boston P.D., Kennedy spent 18 years practicing law. She later served as director of a domestic violence program in Massachusetts and was appointed executive director of the Governor’s Commission on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault serving under the administrations of governors Jane Swift and Mitt Romney. Kennedy eventually moved to North Carolina where she headed a domestic violence program serving Orange County.

“I tried to retire twice,” Kennedy said, “but it never stuck.”

She arrived in Georgetown in 2011 and relented to take the co-executive position along with Bourus in 2014.

“Neither of us wanted a job full time. We met and decided to serve together. It’s an amazing agency with an amazing board,” Kennedy said.

Additional staff at this time include Veronica Akong who moved to Myrtle Beach from New York last year. Akong has counseled clients with substance abuse problems, the severely mentally ill and domestic violence victims.

96 percent of female victims were murdered by someone they knew - Violence Policy Center

“I am definitely excited and looking forward to being able to provide help for as many people as possible,” she said. “This place can be a beacon, a place for people to come for help.”

Program director for the Georgetown office and a life coach, Linda Collins works three days a week in Horry County providing case management until a case manager is hired. Collins worked with CASA before joining the FJC. Case management is important to the victims, she said, because “case management can help them maneuver through resources to establish a non-violent home.”

Collins said while a counselor can assist a victim get through the emotional aspect of leaving a domestic violence situation, a case manager can help them navigate through the steps that need to happen to leave one relationship and move into something new and better.

A legal advocate also works with the agency, providing assistance at the county courthouse with obtaining orders of protection.

Dividing the workload

With a primary office for the Family Justice Center located at1530 Highmarket Street in Georgetown, the co-executive directors have divided the work to cover the two counties’ nearly 2,000 square miles that is home to 344,000 residents.

Splitting up the work, Bourus will handle the Horry County office where she will work to find funding to cover the cost of services and a future shelter.

Kennedy has assumed responsibility for the recent opening of a thrift store in Andrews, a rural part of Georgetown County where transportation issues prevent many victims from obtaining crisis resources, she said.

The store is based on a program of “social entrepreneurship,” she said, the foundation of which is to make money to serve the common good and in her previous experience has proven effective in gaining closer contact with the local public, law enforcement and churches.

Unlike other thrift stores, Kennedy said the Andrews facility located at 17 West Main is a resale boutique with a tearoom and an office for providing services to victims of domestic violence. Women fearful of seeking help might find services within the shop easier to approach.

“Andrews is 18 miles from Georgetown,” Kennedy said. “Transportation problems prevent women and children from getting any services.”

Rented through a “generous” landlady with $15,000 in funding from the Frances Bunnelle Foundation and private donors, the walk-in shop offers a counseling room where support groups can be held. For now, the shop is open Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with anyone needing services at other times to call the Georgetown office or crisis hotline for assistance.

Funding the Horry County expansion

Bourus admits the agency “jumped” into Horry County before it had all the funds needed. With Horry County “flagged” in the strategic plan of the S.C. Department of Public Safety’s “Victim of Crime Act,” as the county with the highest volume of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse reports, the FJC board felt it necessary to move quickly to provide resources.

Victims were having to travel to Georgetown to get help. Often transportation was a problem for “women in immediate crisis and on the run.”

“We felt if we were serving these people who are in such pain, we could help provide healing,” Bourus said.

Of the homicide victims who knew their offenders, 62 percent were murdered by a husband, common-law husband, ex-husband or boyfriend - Violence Policy Center

To help support the agency’s move into Horry County, two fundraising events are scheduled, the first on Sept. 29 at Coastal Carolina University’s Johnson Auditorium. South Carolina author Dorothea Benton Frank will be guest speaker at Lunafest, a traveling film festival “by, for, about women.” Hosted by CCU’s Women in Philanthropy and Leadership, the evening begins with a 6 p.m. reception and book signing, followed by a 7 p.m. talk by Frank and the short films. Each $35 ticket holder will receive Frank’s latest novel, “All Summer Long.”

The public will have a second chance to support FJC’s services by sponsoring or purchasing trees at the Dicken’s Christmas Show Festival of Trees. A fundraiser that for many years helped fund CASA, the event has now been designated for the FJC by festival founder Myra Starnes.

As funding resources grow, Bourus said plans are to once again have a secure shelter specifically for domestic violence victims in Horry County but admits it will take a community effort to make that happen.

“You cannot be No. 1 in the nation and not have it affect most of the citizens in the community,” Bourus said. She said it is “heart rending” when people make donations in memory of a mother or sister killed during a domestic violence incident.

For more information about the Family Justice Center’s services in Horry County, call 843-445-2583. Currently, the office is open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. To reach the Georgetown office call 843-546-3926. For those needing immediate crisis assistance, 24-hour hotline is available at 844-208-0161.

Freelance reporter Angela Nicholas can be reached at aknicholas28@gmail.com.

How you can help

What | Lunafest, a series of short films by, for, about women

Where | CCU’s Johnson Auditorium, Conway

When | 6 p.m. Sept. 29

Cost | $35 donation

Contact | 843-546-3926; info@fjcgeorgetown.org

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What | FJC Festival of Trees

Where | Dickens Christmas Show

When | Nov. 10-13

Contact | 843-445-2583 to sponsor a tree

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