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Lighting the way
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Effingham County Commissioner Vera Jones reads a proclamation declaring October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month during Tuesdays annual candlelight vigil in honor of domestic violence victims. - photo by Photo by Calli Arnold

With dusk, reverence set in the circle of nearly 20 people in front of the Effingham County Administrative Complex facing Laurel Street.

After the candles were lit, women of the community who have worked closely with Effingham County Victim Witness Assistance Program read off chilling statistics about the state of domestic violence in this state and county.

“There were 836 domestic violence calls to law enforcement in Effingham County in 2010, which includes verbal and physical violence, all genders, all races,” said one.

“From 2003-2010, 962 Georgia citizens lost their lives due to domestic violence,” said another. “In 43 percent of these cases, children were present during the domestic violence killing.”

The reality of domestic violence set in with each reader. Effingham Victim Witness served 366 clients in 2010 for a range of services to victims of crime; Georgia has the sixth highest homicide rate in the nation for women killed by men.

Victim Witness observed its annual candlelight vigil Tuesday night to honor victims of domestic violence who have survived and those who weren’t so fortunate, as well as to bring community awareness to the array of services ECVWAP offers for various types of domestic abuse.

The Board of Commissioners issued a proclamation, read by Commissioner Vera Jones, declaring October Domestic Violence Awareness Month in Effingham County.

“Especially in Effingham, we’ve had children who’ve been victims and sometimes the caregivers are the culprits, and really, we’re the only voice they have,” said Ogeechee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Richard Mallard, noting the support victims need from his office, law enforcement and from Victim Witness after the incidence and/or continued domestic abuse.

“Love should not hurt,” said Betty Upchurch, ECVWAP victim services coordinator. “So many people that we see on a day to day basis, love hurts them real bad.”

Listening on as she has for many years was the agency’s founder, Ruth Lee, attending the vigil as a board member for the last time.

“It’s gratifying to know that something I had a role in establishing has established itself so well and is recognized in the community as a viable community agency,” she said.

Lee said she spearheaded the agency in 1989 after what she said she noted as a “rash of incidents” of child sexual abuse in the county coming through her office at the Department of Family and Children’s Services.

“That was one area that we could address to help families that were victims,” she said. “And from there, it just moved on to doing everything that Victim Witness covers.”

Along with child and spousal abuse, for both male and female victims, ECVWAP deals with verbal abuse, domestic battery, elder abuse, and even counseling victims of armed robbery at a Springfield business as they prepared to go to court, Lee recalled. They also host workshops for law enforcement and attorneys working with domestic abuse victims as well.

“That’s one of the things that you don’t know a whole lot about,” said Lee. “We will provide support in court appearances. The average person that is a victim has probably never been to court and is scares the living daylights out of them.”

Most recently, Victim Witness director Glenda King has taken it upon the agency to expand into bullying. After writing a grant, she and a group of local puppeteers and volunteers bring the message to church groups and elementary schools that “bullying is not cool.”
King made a special presentation to Lee, much to her surprise, for all her years of service and for establishing the organization.

Lee thanked the county commissioners for their support over the years and, later noting that even though budgeted funding had slumped, the agency receives a 5 percent fee from court cases. She also thanked the community for embedding the service agency into the fabric of the community.

“It took a lot of pushing and a lot of hard work, and there were trips and falls along the way,” Lee said after the presentation. “But through it all, we’ve come out with what I think is an excellent program.”

Lee said that to her knowledge, ECVWAP is the only victims services agency in the state that is not budgeted and affiliated with a prosecution or judicial office in the state.

She also commended King for her administration and expansion of Victim Witness as its director, noting that her position is part time, but, “she probably works time and a half.”

“She’s always looking for something,” Lee said. “I would say we are very fortunate to have her there administering the program and doing the many things she does to see that it’s successful.”

This month, ECVWAP pulled off its most successful fundraiser yet, Effingham Dancing With the Stars, which raised nearly $16,000.

“This is one of the things that I’ve been able to do in my life that I’m most proud of,” Lee said of the agency.

Lee recognized that the fight against domestic abuse would never be over but victims will have someone to turn to, someone to speak for them.

“We can’t cure the problem of domestic abuse,” Lee said, “but we can help those who are victims and help them understand that it’s not their fault.”