July 26, 2015, is a date etched in Michelle Williams' memory forever. That's the day her sister Tracy was murdered.
"Every time I tell that, I have to say the whole thing. In my head it's a news broadcast," she said. "Tracy Williams murdered by her ex-partner. At a Franklin County Food Lion parking lot. On July 26, 2015."
Williams was driving when another sister called to break the news to her. It sent her in to an out-of-body experience.
"And all of a sudden I heard somebody screaming. Just screaming and screaming," she said. "And I could hear it. And my son was like, 'Mom!' And he had grabbed the wheel because I didn't even realize it was me screaming."
Tracy Williams had been gunned down by Garry Yarborough, her former boyfriend. This summer, Yarborough was convicted of first degree murder. He is serving a life sentence in Central Prison in Raleigh.
"Tracy was so full of life. You never realize it until a person is gone, how much of an impact they had on your life," Williams said. "When Tracy walked into a room it just lit the whole room up. And you never realize it until that person doesn't walk into the room anymore. Because she would just walk and be like, 'What are y'all doing?' and she would start doing something silly, crazy, and she just lit it up. So it's like a light is gone from our family."
On average, there's a domestic violence crisis call once every four minutes in North Carolina. That means a new call before the average person finishes reading this story.
In Franklin County, there would be some good to come from the 2015 murder. Williams found Monica McInnis, who had recently been named the executive director for Safe Space, a local nonprofit focused on ending domestic violence and sexual assault. Hearing Williams' story gave McInnis pause. She did some research.
"And what we found was that since 1996, we've had 15 domestic violence related homicides in Franklin County. Which made me say, 'Wait a minute, that's a lot for a small area such as this – 66,000 people."
Across North Carolina, there are more than 112,000 domestic violence related crisis calls per year, resulting in more than 52,000 clients seeking safety, according to statistics from the North Carolina Council for Women. But even those numbers are almost certainly an undercount. And those that fall through the cracks can wind up in even more violent situations.
McInnis wanted to do something meaningful to reverse those numbers.
"And so it prompted me to start the Franklin County Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Task Force for us to look at the system, and how the system responds," she said.
Importantly, McInnis got buy-in from the Franklin County Sheriff's Office. Sgt. Robert Legnante is the Detective Sergeant of the Domestic Violence unit, the task force dedicated to reducing domestic violence.
"Two years ago after another domestic death that we had in the county, we decided to start looking for a better way of doing things and how people wouldn't fall through the cracks," he said.
Now, when sheriff officers respond to a domestic disturbance, they have an added step. They ask targeted questions to victims.
"And it's just basically a questionnaire that allows that lady to know that this is not the Sheriff's Office telling you this. This is a national survey that's saying that you are in extreme danger for domestic violence," said Legnante.
The officer will ask yes-or-no questions designed to trigger a response.
- Has he or she ever used a weapon against you, or threatened you with a weapon?
- Has he ever threatened to kill you or your children? Or do you think he might kill you or your children?
- Does he own a weapon, or can he easily come in possession of a weapon?
- Has he ever chocked you, or tried to choke you?
- Is he consistently jealous of you, or controlling of your daily activities?
- Has he ever tried to separate you from your family members?
- Does he try to keep you unemployed?
- Has he ever tried to kill himself, or hurt himself?
- Do you have children that are yours or his?
- Does he follow you, spy on you, or leave you threatening messages?
In many cases, Legnante says victims might not recognize the true danger they are in. If a victim answers yes to either of the first two questions, or to at least four of the remaining questions, the officer will automatically call the Domestic Violence Prevention hotline and literally hand the phone to the victim.
The program is working, say all involved. Data suggest they are right. Domestic violence related calls have not changed much in Franklin County. But the number of clients getting help in the county is up more than 60 percent in just two years. To McInnis that means more women are seeking help and getting out of harm's way.
"Domestic violence is a public health issue. And if we look at it from that standpoint, then we can start to evoke some change in our whole community."