Black Mom Fights South Carolina’s Family Court System for Failing to Protect Domestic Violence Victims
Meet Evelyn Hemphill, an African American mom, a hardworking woman, the matriarch of her family, and an advocate from Chester County, South Carolina. She is also a two-time survivor of domestic violence, and she became an advocate because of the way South Carolina’s Family Court System mishandled her divorce and subsequent court cases, wreaking havoc on the lives of her and her son.
A surgical technologist by profession with over two decades of experience, she never intended to be an advocate. She planned to raise her son to be the best man he could be and to focus on her efforts at work so that she could fund his college education.
“Thank God we don’t look like what we’ve been through,” says Evelyn. “I can smile today, but I have a story to tell, and it ain’t all peaches and cream. I have been fighting the South Carolina Family Court System for 14 years and still have not gotten justice.”
The state of South Carolina ranks sixth-highest* in the country when comparing the percentage of female residents who have experienced Domestic Violence, and the state has also ranked within the nation’s top 10 for the highest rate of intimate partner-related mortality for nearly 20 years. A report commissioned by the Jamie Kimble Foundation for Courage reveals Domestic Violence cost ‘the state’ $358.4 million in 2020. And while studies, like the Jamie Kimble Foundation’s study, conducted by a University of South Carolina economist, will assess the economic impact of Domestic Violence for the state, no South Carolina agency or institution dares address the long-term implications for Domestic Violence survivors or the financial strain on Domestic Violence victims, like Evelyn Hemphill. Evelyn’s court battles have cost her over $100,000, depleting her savings and her child’s college fund and landing her heavily in debt.
In 2010, Evelyn paid an attorney, her 1st lawyer, $7,500 for her defense as a respondent in a divorce proceeding. When her attorney neglected to appear in court, South Carolina Family Court levied a default judgment, awarding custody of her child to her abuser. Evelyn then paid a 2nd lawyer $4,500 to restore the case to the court calendar. This lawyer took her money and also stole the entire legal file. A 3rd lawyer failed to file the paperwork necessary to restore the case to the court calendar within the court’s 365-day mandate. Evelyn then paid a 4th lawyer’s retainer.
Domestic violence already takes a physical, emotional, and mental toll on victims. The assumption is that Family Court is supposed to protect women and children. Evelyn can attest to how her court battles were handled by the South Carolina Family’s Court System kept her in duress for 14 years, much longer than the 11 years she had remained married to an abusive husband. “It was horrible,” says Evelyn. “I was on a desperate journey for justice, and it never happened,” Plus, her abuser invaded her home and physically attacked her five years after the divorce proceedings were final.
Evelyn’s legal battles not only ravaged her finances but also took a toll on her health, leading her to develop a Thyroid condition after losing custody of her child, paying child support to her abuser, and being viciously attacked by her abuser during a home invasion, all while financing her on-going court battles. “In 2018, working with her 4th and last attorney cost Evelyn over $10,000 in billable hours and court costs to no avail. At that point, she decided to fire him and represent herself in the custody case.”
Evelyn represented herself as a pro se litigant and brought her case before the South Carolina Court of Appeals and the South Carolina Supreme Court, only to have her case dismissed on another technicality. “I am not a lawyer, but my experience taught me I’d do a better job myself. I have never in my life seen such gross negligence. But the court system would not protect me, reprimand the individual lawyers, or hold the individual lawyers accountable. The court gave them all a pass. So, how can any regular citizen trust our court system when it is obvious to us that the plaintiff’s attorney, the defendant’s attorney, and the judge are all colleagues and friends?”
South Carolina’s Criminal Court issued a Lifetime No-contact Restraining Order. Domestic Violence programs sanctioned by the state will fund an advocate for criminal court proceedings. However, in Family Court, victims are left to fend for themselves. While this was happening, South Carolina’s Family Court allowed the abuser to retain custody of the victim’s child, though she had never been deemed an unfit parent by any agency. “But when I learned that even the criminal attack was going to be inadmissible in court, that stirred something inside me to want to do all I can to make sure other women don’t have to go through what I went through.”
Most egregiously, South Carolina’s Family Court did not grant Evelyn, a Domestic Violence victim, her right to have a testimony of her abuse heard and documented in Family Court proceedings. The Court of Appeals in the State of South Carolina decided Evelyn’s case without oral argument, pursuant to Rule 215, SCACR, and further referenced the following: THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE. IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS PRECEDENT IN ANY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 268(d)(2), SCACR.
By law**, South Carolina’s hefty $358.4 million price tag is gleaned from South Carolina’s marriage license fees. None of this funding goes to Domestic Victims directly. Nonprofit corporations appropriate and disburse these funds to cover state-sanctioned emergency shelters, community programs, and initiatives for victim support, hotlines, health care, transportation services, law enforcement costs, etc.
“How many women are in prison in South Carolina for murdering their abuser? I didn’t turn to drugs. I didn’t lose my life. I kept my integrity, compassion, and composure while fighting for my life in the South Carolina Court System. My former abuser had every opportunity to kill me if he wanted to because of the system’s failure.”
Evelyn began community service, volunteering with a Domestic Violence 501(c)3 nonprofit organization called Catapult Outreach, Inc., as a volunteer adviser to the board and Domestic Violence advocate. “This is not just for me. It’s for all of the people who are going through something similar and all of those people who are no longer here to tell their stories. I have been sharing my story during speaking engagements at no cost to the community. Unfortunately, our past affects our future, and this whole ordeal has set me back twenty years, depleted my finances, and left me struggling to keep a roof over my head and put my son through school, which is why I am now turning to the public.”