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Vigil shines light on domestic violence

Candlelight and purple luminarias lined the front stairway of the Beaufort County Courthouse on Thursday evening as a group gathered for a somber purpose. They were there to recognize and honor the men, women and children who have been killed by domestic violence in North Carolina in 2019.

Organized by Ruth’s House, Beaufort County’s domestic violence advocacy nonprofit, the annual candlelight vigil serves as a public acknowledgement of the issue, and the potentially deadly consequences.

As those gathered stood with candles in hand, Ruth’s House shelter manager Jessica Yoder read down a list, one by one, of the names of 49 people who have lost their lives.

“We always think, ‘This doesn’t happen here,’ or ‘This only happens in big towns,’” said Ruth’s House client services coordinator Jaclyn Cullipher. “But 63% of these murders happened in communities smaller than Greenville. So it does happen in tiny communities where everybody knows everyone and everybody goes to the same church. It’s your neighbors.”

While no one has been killed in Beaufort County this year, one of the deaths did hit close to home. May 13, a local woman named Caitlyn Whitehurst was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend, Christopher Garris, while leaving her family’s property in Pactolus. Garris then turned the gun on himself, taking his own life.

From a law enforcement perspective, Beaufort County Sheriff Ernie Coleman says he has seen a lot of change over the decades, with an increase in awareness and reporting.

“Domestic violence has been highlighted in last several years,” Coleman said. “It’s been going on for many, many years, but it just wasn’t reported. Back in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, with our mothers and grandmothers, that was the kind of thing that was shameful for a family and you just didn’t report it. It’s come to light more in the new age.”

For BCSO deputies, specialized training helps them diffuse potentially dangerous situations. When the BCSO encounters a potential domestic violence situation, Coleman says the agency works with Ruth’s House to help victims get the resources they need.

SOMBER REMEMBRANCE: Participants in Thursday evening’s vigil prepare to extinguish their candles after hearing the names of 49 people killed by domestic violence in North Carolina this year. The event was organized by Ruth’s House. (Matt Debnam/Daily News)

While the 49 people killed were each victims of tragic circumstances, the silver lining is the work that Ruth’s House and other advocacy organizations are doing statewide to help.

Just this year, Ruth’s House has fielded 175 domestic violence calls and served 35 families. At the nonprofit’s shelter, the group has provided shelter for 33 people, including 13 children, with clients staying an average of 56 days. In addition, Ruth’s House has been able help find permanent, stable and affordable homes for 17 people escaping abusive relationships.

The group also provides advocacy in the courtroom. For 21 people, that has meant obtaining Domestic Violence Protection Orders and pressing criminal charges against their abusers. All told, the staff at the nonprofit has been to court 48 times, providing support and advocacy for their clients.

Beyond those services, the nonprofit also sponsors education and awareness events throughout the community. These range from teaching young people about healthy relationships, to helping adults recognize the signs of an abusive relationship and how help friends and loved ones out of bad situations.

“Do get involved,” Cullipher said. “I think we always try to leave people’s relationships alone, but if you think someone is being abused, say something. Speak up, be a listening ear. Tell them there is help; tell them about us. We’re here. Don’t turn a blind eye to it.”

To learn more about Ruth’s House, visit www.ruths-house.org. If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic abuse, call the Ruth’s House help line at 252-940-0007. To learn more about supporting Ruth’s House or about their education and outreach programs, call 252-946-0709.