The number of domestic violence cases reported in Georgia spiked more than 20 percent in the last five years. Tennessee cases also increased, though less drastically, state numbers show.
In Georgia, incidents of family violence rose from 54,000 to 65,000 from 2006 to 2010. In Tennessee, incidents of domestic violence rose nearly 6 percent, from 80,500 to 85,000.
The majority of those abused were women, but more than a third of the Georgia cases involved children, according to Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime data.
Authorities agree that education is a key to combating violence in homes and hope to get the word out on a larger scale through October — Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Local experts say the economy doesn’t seem to be the driving factor behind the abuse, but they said hard times could influence women to stay longer in hostile environments.
“The prospect of [abused women] gaining employment and getting a house five years ago were better,” said Beth Peters, outreach coordinator with the Northwest Georgia Family Crisis Center.
As domestic violence awareness continues to grow, authorities say the spike in reports could indicate that more people are aware of the problem and taking action.
“How do you measure success?” asked Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney Kermit McManus. “More cases because people are reporting more? ... Or less [cases?]”
A nationwide study released in September by the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, ranked Tennessee fifth and Georgia sixth in the number of females killed by males in single-victim homicides in 2009.
In the Chattanooga region, several recent slayings involved domestic abuse, including two women who police say were killed by their husbands.
It’s not easy to combat family-related abuse even as awareness is growing, authorities said.
The Northwest Georgia Family Crisis Center’s office in Gordon County sees 20 to 30 new clients a month, Peters said, and most are women. Lately, the office has been seeing women with more extreme physical abuse, she said.
The number of domestic violence cases was generally stable in Northwest Georgia counties from 2006 to 2010, with substantial increases only in Dade and Gordon.
But there are ups and downs.
In Walker County, the sheriff’s office answered nearly four domestic-related calls every 24 hours in August and September, said Sheriff Steve Wilson.
“We probably take more domestic calls than we do traffic accidents,” he said.
Throughout Georgia, 34 percent of incidents reported result in an arrest, GBI statistics show. Walker County reported 1,052 domestic violence incidents and 234 arrests in 2010. In Catoosa County, out of the 505 cases reported, 159 arrests were made.
Georgia law officers can’t make an arrest unless there is physical evidence, whether on the victim or within the home, Wilson said.
“We can’t just make a case based on a call,” Wilson said.
The economy may play a role in domestic violence but perhaps not in the same way people perceive, authorities said.
“Contrary to what many people would predict, there isn’t much evidence that domestic violence is increasing because of the recession,” Dr. Sherry Hamby, a psychology professor at Sewanee: University of the South, said in an email.
The economy may affect the type of help victims receive, like seeking help at a free shelter instead of renting an apartment, Hamby said.
For the last five years, Dalton State College has hosted a domestic violence conference to educate the public and professionals. The conference continues to draw crowds across the region, said Dr. Lynne Gabe, professor of social work.
Some of the major topics at the conference are combating myths about why women stay in abusive situations and ongoing training for law enforcement, she said.
“The myths are she’s stupid, she’s dependent and she thinks she’s in love with him,” Gabe said.
People need to know that women usually stay in abusive relationships because of fear, she said.
That fear often plays out in the courtroom setting as well. When a victim chooses to keep quiet and not testify, it becomes “extremely difficult to prosecute,” McManus said.
But since more emphasis has been placed on training law enforcement and officials, prosecutors are able to press charges in more cases even if the victim isn’t cooperating, he said.
Also, McManus said, he has investigators in his circuit who focus solely on domestic violence cases.
Training police to recognize and enforce domestic violence cases is one of the keys to combating the problem, Gabe said.
“Law enforcement is our biggest education area,” she said.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...