Tania Smith spends every Friday in court for domestic violence protective order hearings.
A court advocate with Domestic Violence Shelter and Services, Inc., Smith has seen the physical and emotional scars left by abusers. She’s seen children and financial control used as tools to manipulate victims.
She’s seen abusers confront their victims outside the courthouse, and fear immediately spread across a victim’s face. She’s seen victims leave the courthouse with their heads hung, feeling discouraged and like they aren’t protected by the criminal justice system.
Smith knows domestic violence is pervasive in New Hanover County. She’s surrounded by it.
“There’s definitely been an increase recently in domestic violence in general,” Smith said.
Cut off from family and friends, the pandemic left victims even more isolated, sheltering in place in homes that might not have been safe for them.
Earlier coverage: Wilmington police: Two found dead from gunshot wounds
In recent months, Wilmington has seen two domestic violence situations that have ended in apparent murder-suicides.
On Nov. 9, 2021, the Wilmington Police Department responded to an urgent check welfare call just before 8 a.m. at an apartment complex at 4100 Hearthside Drive. Inside, two people were found dead: one 19-year-old female who died from a gunshot wound and a 23-year-old male with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Less than a month later, police responded to the Holly Tree Racquet Club where two people died in another apparent murder-suicide.
‘Listen to them’
Mandy Houvouras, director of direct services and outreach with Domestic Violence Shelter and Services, Inc., said when domestic violence homicides, serious threats and assaults occur, it’s often after a victim attempts to leave an abusive relationship.
“That’s when the abuser is losing all of this control that they’ve had,” she said. “The moral of that story is not that people should stay, but it’s that we need to listen to them.”
Houvouras said domestic violence is an ongoing issue in Wilmington and the larger community, and one that’s been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since 2019, she said, the organization has seen an “alarming increase in demand for services and support.”
In 2020, Houvouras said, the shelter saw a dramatic increase in the number of shelter nights it provided for domestic violence survivors – from 2,742 in 2019 to 9,364 in 2020. In 2021, that number was still more than 8,000.
The number of total services provided by the agency climbed from 8,240 in 2019 to more than 11,000 in 2020 and more than 10,600 in 2021.
To see those numbers jump during a time when many people may not be seeking services due to COVID-19, she said, is concerning.
According to data from the New Hanover County 911 Center, the county as a whole saw more than 5,400 domestic calls in 2021, up slightly from around 5,390 in each 2019 and 2020. The number of calls reporting domestic violence with weapons rose slightly from 356 in 2019 to 366 in 2020, then fell to just more than 324 in 2021.
The Wilmington Police Department saw nearly 200 more domestic calls in 2021 than in 2020, with 3,371 calls in 2020 and 3,558 as of the last week of 2021.
“When you look at numbers like that, it’s staggering,” Houvouras said. “As a community, we’re not aware that it’s happening on the level that it is.”
Toward the end of 2021 and in the beginning weeks of 2022, Houvouras said, the shelter was serving more than four times its capacity, with COVID-19 safety measures in place.
This week, she said, the shelter is housing 38 people. Its capacity is 10.
“This is definitely stretching us to our max,” she said. “But we know how serious these cases can be, and so we are really committed to trying to find a solution when we can.”
This increase in demand for services is also an increase in demand for resources, she said. Currently, the shelter is in need of volunteers, non-perishable food items, toiletries and laundry products. Gift cards for gas, restaurants, Walmart and Target are also helpful.
Still displaced from a permeant location due to Hurricane Florence, Houvouras said as the agency works to find a new location, it’s using this surge in demand to assess and address the need in the community and inform the needs of the shelter.
What we know: Two dead following Holly Tree Road shooting
Houvouras said the increase in demand for services speaks to the reality of domestic violence in the Wilmington community, and while it’s troubling, advocates weren’t too surprised to see this trend.
Domestic violence is about power and control, she said, and isolation is one of the tools abusers can use to gain those.
“It was, unfortunately, not surprising for advocates to see a big demand in services,” she said.
Resources and warning signs
But, she said, those supports do exist in New Hanover County. Houvouras said law enforcement officers in the area are dedicated to helping domestic violence victims and work closely with Domestic Violence Shelter and Services, Inc. and other similar agencies to offer support.
“There is hope,” Houvouras said. “That abuser makes you feel as though you have no other option, but once you crack that door, there is a world of support out there.”
Smith said the New Hanover County Domestic Violence Advisory Council is a resource that has existed in the community for around two decades. The council — made up of advocates, law enforcement, and partners with UNCW, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other community organizations — meets monthly, Smith said, to discuss trends and ways to offer support to victims of domestic violence.
Domestic violence isn’t always physical and it isn’t always visible, Houvouras said.
“You don’t enter into abusive relationships, relationships become abusive over time,” she said.
Isolation, manipulation and emotional abuse are all examples of domestic violence, she said.
If you are in an abusive relationship and seeking support, call the Domestic Violence Shelter at 910-343-0703, or start a chat online at www.domesticviolence-wilm.org. Support can also be found at the agency’s office building, located at 2901 Market Street. This is not the location of the shelter.
Those who have observed signs of domestic abuse in someone they know, Houvouras said, can play an important role in encouraging them to find support. Just one person — a friend, doctor, hairdresser, family member — noticing and offering support can be all it takes for a victim to seek help.
“We all have that power, we can all do that for each other,” she said. “And it takes all of us to address this issue.”