Deaths from family violence are rising in Georgia. Here’s why

Last year there were 212 family violence related deaths in Georgia — a nearly 50% increase over the previous year. The coronavirus pandemic is part of the explanation for the sharp rise, but there are other factors, including the difficulty in identifying when a death is related to family violence. For more on this, GPB’s Peter Biello spoke with Hall County Solicitor-General and board chair of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence Stephanie Woodard.

Peter Biello: How does law enforcement define a “family violence death”?

Stephanie Woodard: The Georgia Legislature has defined intimate partner violence as relationship-defined. Those who are together lawfully married, have lived together, and/or lawfully related by family. So that means parent/child, siblings. It was meant to exclude roommates but it doesn’t fully adequately define our modern ideas of relationships. There are family structures that have not been recognized by communities and sometimes law enforcement. Our metro areas understood and recognized same gender partners and more non-traditional relationships as a family structure, whereas rural Georgia has taken a bit more time to understand and see these families within their community.

Peter Biello: So if the police aren’t really capturing the full picture of the family situation, how are you able to determine if a death is a family violence related death or not?

Stephanie Woodard: First we deep dive and fine-tooth comb all the data we can. We attempt to review law enforcement records and look for nuances that we may see in reading the report that tell us if people might have been intimate partner violence.

Peter Biello: What are some of those nuances?

Stephanie Woodard: So if adults have cohabitated for five years or more, we’re outside a college roommate type of situation. If there are children that both people identify as caregivers for — nuances like that, where we see people exhibiting a conjoined life. The media plays a major role for us. We have set up media alerts where Google and other search engines when the media has used words like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” “life partner,” “significant other” in reporting on different situations. And we comb through media reports and collate those with the reports that we’re watching. Media is often better at asking questions and seeking information and creating an environment where someone will speak.

Peter Biello: So help me understand why there may have been such a huge spike between 2020 and 2021 in family violence fatalities and murder/suicide fatalities. Was it because police and law enforcement have become more inclusive in the way they count these incidents? Is it because you, using media reports, have been able to find more of these and count them as family violence fatalities? Or is it simply that more are happening because of maybe the stresses of the pandemic? Or maybe it’s “D, all of the above”?

Stephanie Woodard: It’s D, all of the above. The Georgia Commission on Family Violence, along with the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, have been working diligently to help train law enforcement to understand the nuances of the human condition to which they’re first responders. And then we are clear that the pandemic really created more tense and tragic situations for folks in our communities.

Peter Biello: Firearms played an outsized role in these deaths. They were involved in 85% of all family-violence-related deaths and 94% of all murder/suicides. Does that suggest that different gun laws could reduce the number of these deaths?

Stephanie Woodard: Absolutely. Federally, if you’ve been convicted of a domestic violence or intimate partner violence crime, you’re not lawfully in possession of a weapon. What a lot people don’t realize is that state or local law enforcement cannot enforce federal laws. And Georgia has not adopted the Lautenberg Amendment. Many other states remove guns from the possession and homes of people who have a prior history — convicted after judicial review. Laws that inhibit the ability to possess during those times would absolutely be a life-saver.

This story comes to The Georgia Sun through a reporting partnership with GA Today, a non-profit newsroom focused on reporting in Georgia.

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