'We just want individuals to realize how serious this really is': Sumter YWCA on importance of year-’round awareness of domestic violence in our community


The Violence Policy Center has released an annual list of states with the most domestic-violence-related homicides for the last 23 years. For 22 of those years, South Carolina ranked in the top 10.

The YWCA of the Upper Lowlands, a nonprofit that provides help for people dealing with domestic abuse, has devoted years to raising awareness and promoting prevention of domestic violence to communities throughout Sumter, Lee and Clarendon counties. As Domestic Violence Awareness Month comes to an end, the conversation surrounding awareness and prevention should not.

"Individuals need to be aware of what is happening," said Cleyardis McDonald-Amaker, executive director of the local YWCA. "This is what goes on in our community. Sometimes, we're always given the happy side of Sumter when there are some low points such as this that we need to be aware of."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines intimate partner violence as abuse or aggression that occurs in a romantic relationship. It can vary in how often it happens, whether physically or emotionally, and it is deemed a serious public health issue in the United States.

"When you speak of intimate partner domestic violence, you have to look at it from a full spectrum," McDonald-Amaker said. "Not only how it affects the individual that is experiencing it, but also how it affects the community."

McDonald-Amaker said abuse begins with behaviors that are often dismissed, especially among youth. The grooming phase, or honeymoon phase, is where individuals show signs of jealousy and control, downgrade their partners and isolate them from family and engage in play fighting and name-calling.

About 11 million women and 5 million men who reported experiencing sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner said they first experienced these forms of violence before the age of 18, according to the CDC. As time passes, the violence becomes more fatal, with about one in five homicide victims being killed by an intimate partner.

Three such homicides were reported in Sumter County from 2019-2021, according to the Sumter County Sheriff's Office. More than 221 domestic violence incidents have been reported so far this year in Sumter County.

According to McDonald-Amaker, the conversation about domestic violence can be a sensitive and uncomfortable one to have.

"Until it hits that person's household, most people will turn a blind eye or deaf ear to the circumstance," she said.

In 2015, the factors of abuse were updated to include physical, sexual, financial, spiritual, digital and stalking. While these patterns of behavior may be obvious to the advocates at the YWCA, they can be misinterpreted by both those experiencing it and their loved ones.

Individuals tend to interpret the abusive behavior as their partner being "crazy" about them or feel the behavior was justified if they didn't do what their partner asked, McDonald-Amaker said.

In an effort to help, loved ones offered solutions such as "just leave" or asked questions like, "How do you not understand what is happening to you?" However, McDonald-Amaker said these are some of the deadliest words to be said to someone experiencing intimate partner violence. The struggle with control and power, in combination with feeling talked at and not to, can lead to them questioning, "What else do I have to lose?"

According to McDonald-Amaker, there are five stages of change a person must undergo on his or her own: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance. Each of these stages is implemented the more an individual comes to terms with the toxicity of the relationship. Once the individual has decided to leave, professional help is sought, and action plans are made and carried out.

As a resource, the YWCA of the Upper Lowlands has introduced motivational enhancement therapy, a person-centered approach to therapy focused on improving an individual's motivation to change and make decisions that are safe for the person and his or her loved ones when seeking a way out.

Along with spreading awareness and promoting prevention, McDonald-Amaker shares her experience as a survivor of intimate partner violence when educating communities. She said this helps the YWCA to localize the impact of domestic violence and highlight the danger that can come if the conversation continues to be swept under the rug.

"We just want individuals to realize how serious this really is," McDonald-Amaker said. "Not to turn a blind eye because it's not happening in your household because you never know when it could, and if it does, what resources will you try to connect with?"

McDonald-Amaker invited the community to join Sumter YWCA for its last candlelight vigil of the month on Thursday on the old Sumter courthouse steps, located at 141 N. Main St., in memory of the lives lost to domestic violence.