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Domestic violence: Why the deaths don’t tell the whole story in Georgia

If she felt like she was in danger, Claudine Rosalind-Angelique Hargrove didn’t let on. Not even to her sister.

“We had that closeness where she knew that she could come to me and she wouldn’t have to hold back,” Karen Hargrove told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The two sisters planned to spend a recent weekend together. But two days after her 38th birthday, Claudine Hargrove was found dead inside a Gwinnett County hotel room. The mother of two had been stabbed to death by a man investigators believe she was dating. Her death came during a week of deadly incidents in metro Atlanta believed to be the result of domestic violence.

“It was completely unexpected and that’s what’s devastating about it,” her sister said. “It’s a shock. It’s a shock.”

During the past decade, an average of 126 Georgians have been killed each year due to domestic violence, according to the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, a government agency. In 2017, the number climbed to 149, up from 121 in 2016, keeping Georgia in top 15 in the nation for deaths from domestic violence, according to the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a nonprofit that works closely with the state agency.

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Despite the headlines, tallying the number of domestic homicides and crimes is a challenge for the two groups. Many cases are overlooked because they don’t fit law enforcement’s definition of domestic violence. Others are never labeled to spare families the stigma that can come with being the victim of “a domestic.”

Through the end of July, 78 deaths have been attributed to domestic violence this year, compared to 92 at the same point in 2017, according to Jennifer Thomas with the state agency. It’s too early to predict what the 2018 fatality number will be for Georgia, but experts warn the number will continue to grow as investigations continue into deadly incidents.

Defining domestic violence

Shortly before 5 a.m. on Aug. 8, Cortez Lofton called 911 to report he had shot his girlfriend inside a Gwinnett County apartment. Lofton, 25, was waiting when officers and paramedics arrived at the Bella Vista apartments off Satellite Boulevard.

Jessica Criff had been shot and was taken to the hospital, but did not survive her injuries. She was 25.

Though the fatal shooting remains under investigation, Gwinnett police said Wednesday no criminal charges had been filed in the case. And police aren’t calling it domestic violence.

“I believe the two were intimately involved but not married nor living together,” Cpl. Michele Pihera said. “Because of their relationship, it cannot be called domestic violence per the law.”

The legal definition of family violence in Georgia requires the crime must occur between current or former husband and wives, parents and children, or people living or formerly living in the same household. This is the definition most police agencies use, but social agencies often use a broader standard.

The family violence state agency defines domestic violence as violence from an intimate partner. Abuse between partners who are dating is considered domestic violence in some states, but Georgia law does not make that distinction.

It’s a daunting task, but the state agency and nonprofit team up to track deaths in Georgia that can be attributed to domestic violence. They scan media reports from around the state and check in with both domestic violence programs at the local level and district attorney’s offices to make sure domestic cases aren’t overlooked.

August 7, 2018 Gwinnett County: A Gwinnett County police crime scene specialist exits under the tape after collecting evidence. A woman was shot and killed in a domestic dispute at an apartment near Duluth Tuesday morning August 7, 2018, police said. The woman was found shot and taken to an area hospital, where she later died of her injuries. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Each year, the two agencies combine their findings and publish them as part of the Fatality Review Project. The data is then used to identify areas that need improvement statewide, with the goal of using the past experiences to drive change.

But it’s not a perfect science, says Taylor Tabb, Fatality Review Project Manager for the nonprofit. There isn’t one simple definition for domestic violence. In addition to physical abuse, psychological and sexual abuse are also types of domestic violence, but police agencies may have different standards for classifying an incident.

“There’s no accurate way to count domestic violence-related homicides because it’s not a category that can be checked off on the coroner’s report,” Tabb said.

The stigma of domestic crime

Early on Aug. 12, a Sunday morning, Amber Wilson drove with a family member to her ex-boyfriend’s Clayton County apartment. The 27-year-old, a detention officer in Irwin County, had recently moved out and wanted to collect her personal belongings, according to police.

When the two arrived, Randy Bernard Young was waiting with a gun. Wilson’s relative was able to run away, but Young fired several shots, striking Wilson. When officers went into a unit at the Brookstone Apartments near College Park, Wilson was already dead.

Young ran from the scene of the shooting, but was found hiding several hours later. He allegedly stabbed a police dog before he was taken into custody, according to police.

Wilson’s death made headlines because of Young’s unusual actions after the shooting. But law enforcement agencies typically don’t publicize domestic violence crimes, meaning many go unreported in the media.

Joseph Jackson (Credit: Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office)

“If we’re not being asked about it and it’s not a crime that shocks the community, it’s not something we’re going to publicize,” Lt. Jay Baker with the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office said. “When it comes to domestic violence, I don’t know that the victim, suspect or the public necessarily wants us to publicize it. Often it’s embarrassing to the family, and it’s a private matter.”

But Karen Hargrove, who recently lost her older sister to domestic violence, said it’s crucial that she and others speak up to prevent other families from the pain of losing someone.

Hargrove, of Atlanta, works as a psychotherapist and deals daily with people in crisis situations. Now she’s wondering if there were signs she missed in her sister’s life. And she wants other to know more about her sister than the details released from the police investigation.

“This is not just a another woman,” Hargrove said. “This was a woman that was loved and talented and did not deserve this.”

Solutions to the problem of domestic violence differ throughout the state, according to Tabb. Some people may not realize that the incident they’ve witnessed counts as a domestic. Or they may be a victim themselves. And victims who don’t know where to turn may not know that help is available.

Law enforcement training along with domestic violence training for businesses and faith-based groups is crucial to keeping the conversation going on a topic that isn’t easy to discuss, experts say.

“There’s work to be done. We always have to be vigilant,” Tabb said. “We can look at the numbers and the cases, but if we don’t implement the changes, we’re going to continue on this terrible trend.”

For Hargrove, stories like her sister’s can help spark awareness and even prevent others who could be in similar situations.

“Even one person, if they can learn there are resources readily available in the community, I really believed a life can be saved through this tragedy,” she said.

GET HELP

If you or someone you know needs help, call the 24-hour statewide hotline for free, confidential assistance: 1-800-33-HAVEN or 1-800-334-2836.

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