Like many domestic violence victims, Charmain ignored early warning signs she was in an abusive relationship, and it nearly cost her her life.
She tolerated her boyfriend’s harsh berating and scolding early on because she wanted to make the relationship work.
Instead of confronting him when he bullied her, Charmain, whose last name is not given because she is a victim of domestic violence, chose to modify her behavior in an attempt to avoid conflicts. The problem was her boyfriend always found something new to complain about, and she never knew what would set him off on a tirade.
“It could be anything,” she said.
Her boyfriend got jealous when a male childhood friend greeted her. Her boyfriend started an argument that turned into a brawl with her friend.
She thought the relationship would improve when they married. Instead it got worse, with arguments escalating in intensity, including shoving and pushing when he got angry. Then things got more physical.
She separated twice in three years before managing to leave after her husband was wheelchair bound from a car wreck.
Charmain said she never expected to be in an abusive relationship, or that she would tolerate someone trying to completely control her life.
“It was surprising for me,” she said. “I stayed because I was determined to make it work.”
Her husband, still in a wheelchair, tried to convince her to reconcile several years later. When she refused, he pulled a gun and shot her twice. One bullet pierced her back and exited near her shoulder. Another bullet struck her in the arm.
Her husband was convicted of aggravated assault for the 1992 shooting and was released from prison after serving eight years of a 13-year sentence.
The memories are still seared in her mind 25 years later.
“I still have nightmares he is chasing me,” she said.
Charmain said she learned to be very careful when she dated other men after she recovered from her wounds. Before accepting an offer for a date, she would ask questions, like an employer conducting a job interview.
“It’s been hard to be in a relationship,” she said. “I learned you can’t change a person.”
Charmain’s story is not an unusual one in the Golden Isles, Coastal Georgia, or the nation.
Domestic violence is defined as “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner,” according to the Office of Violence Against Women, an arm of the U.S. Justice Department.
Family violence can take many forms, including physical violence, sexual violence, economic abuse, emotional abuse, isolation, intimidation, stalking and reproductive coercion. Studies show domestic violence is committed mostly by men against women. Men and women in same-sex relationships experience the same rate of domestic violence as heterosexual women.
According to a report from the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, 1,671 people in Georgia were killed in domestic violence disputes from 2003 through 2016.
The state is ranked No. 8 in the nation for its rate of men killing women, according to the report, with firearms used in 71 percent of domestic violence fatalities. The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500 percent, the report shows.
In 2015, there were 65,487 family violence incidents in Georgia, resulting in 24,710 protective and stalking orders issued.
The next year, there were 53,414 crisis calls to certified domestic violence agencies in Georgia, resulting in 5,390 victims and children spending 332,110 nights of refuge in a domestic violence shelter, the report found.
In Glynn County, the Glynn Community Crisis Center received 620 calls, resulting in 51 women and 42 children living in Amity House during 2016.
Nearly half of the victims in fatal domestic violence cases in Georgia were between the ages of 13 and 24.
The crime is widespread, with one in four women and one in seven men experiencing severe physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetimes. One in seven women and one in 18 men have been stalked by an intimate partner where the victims believed they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.
Among high school students who dated, 21 percent of girls and 10 percent of boys experienced physical and/or sexual dating violence.
Cultural backgrounds have little impact on the rates, according to the study, with immigrants and refugees experiencing the same rates as other communities.
Family violence impacts every part of society, regardless of race, socioeconomics or region, said Cary Greenfield, executive director of CASA Glynn, a nonprofit organization that advocates for abused and neglected children.
“It doesn’t know any boundaries,” she said. “It transcends every income level, every background.”
Family violence is even more underreported in affluent communities.
“I just think some people here have more resources to hide it,” Greenfield said.
There’s also an embarrassment to being a victim of family violence, said Dorothy Bromley, executive director of the Glynn Community Crisis Center.
“It’s a misreported crime,” Bromley said. “There’s a stigma involved with being abused, the embarrassment with what you put your family through. If you’re a man, there’s the whole male issue.”
Women will often try to cover bruises with makeup, clothing and lies when they are in public. But not all abuse leaves physical marks.
Women in abusive relationships often show signs of abuse or family violence. They sometimes isolate themselves from friends and family, stop driving a car, quit going to church or participating in other social interactions, said Elizabeth Dunn, community outreach coordinator for Glynn Community Crisis Center.
On average, a person in an abusive relationship leaves seven times before finally being successful. Each time he or she leaves, it is the most dangerous moment, despite the abuses endured to reach that decision.
In 2016, the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence reported 121 Georgians were killed in domestic violence incidents.
Victims often hide the fact they are living in an abusive relationship for a number of reasons.
Often, children and pets are threatened with physical harm when a woman tries to leave an abusive household, making the crime even more concerning.
“It’s never OK for kids to witness domestic violence,” Bromley said. “There have to be consequences.”
The victim may feel she or he doesn’t have anywhere to go, especially when children are involved. In other instances, the victim is afraid her husband or boyfriend will be arrested, children removed from the home and her family broken apart if she calls the authorities.
“There’s a real fear and perception that the only alternative is to lock them up forever,” said Jackie Johnson, district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit. “There are family members, friends, support groups to help get them out of that situation.”
In reality, there are many resources available — including family counseling — to keep families intact, if they choose to do so, Johnson said.
“They are generally sorry, but they can’t break that behavior,” she said of the assailants. “We’re not trying to hurt them. We’re trying to help them.”