Brenda Bruner remembers dreading each Christmas, fearful her then-husband would beat her more often.
And her worst fears always came true.
"We never had a happy time around the Christmas tree," she said, her voice shaking with emotion. "I dreaded the holidays. One year, he dressed up like Santa Claus and went over to my mother's house. My little brother, who was 6, said he wasn't really Santa, and my husband proceeded to break everything in my mother's house."
Stories like Mrs. Bruner's are common, say counselors and police officers bracing for an increase in domestic violence over the holidays.
"Holidays can be a stressful time, even for people in the best situations," said Nancy Nelson, executive director of Safe Homes of Augusta Inc. "There are extra financial burdens, and also a lot of drinking over the holidays. While alcohol is not the primary cause of domestic violence, it can accentuate the problem and act as a de-inhibitor."
Most women, however, will refuse to leave their homes during the holidays, even if the abuse becomes worse.
"January and February are generally blockbuster months for us," Mrs. Nelson said. "People try to hold on until after the holidays, so they don't ruin Christmas."
The figures don't always reflect the levels of abuse, Mrs. Nelson said, and are influenced by several factors.
For example, there were more than 1,000 calls in November because of new community outreach programs, Mrs. Nelson said. A January decrease to 438 may have been one result of the death of Jacqueline Williams, who was killed by her estranged husband on New Year's Day.
To combat the problem, sheriff's offices in Columbia and Richmond counties formed special domestic violence units this summer, staffed by officers with training in domestic abuse. The Richmond County unit has three such officers but hopes to increase the unit to six. The Columbia County unit has four officers.
"They intervene in situations, make arrests, give information on counseling services, take pictures to document signs of violence, testify in court and do follow-ups with victims to see if the situation has improved," Columbia County Lt. Don Savage said.
"We're able to give the cases a little more personal attention," Richmond County Capt. Ken Autry said. "Prior to this year we didn't have a separate form for domestic violence."
The domestic violence reports are turned over to case managers such as Yasmine Thomas-Goodman of Safe Homes of Augusta Inc. She contacts victims to offer support.
Happily remarried for 18 years, Mrs. Bruner now works as a volunteer with another support group, the Cumbee Center to Assist Abused Persons, where she tries to help other women.
"I'm one of the lucky ones," Mrs. Bruner said. "I love the holidays so much now, and I used to despise them."
For more information on the services available to abused persons, contact Safe Homes at 736-2499 or the Cumbee Center to Assist Abused Persons at (803) 649-0480.