(Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part story on domestic violence.)
Cindy Robinson remembers the night like it was yesterday.
She said he smashed the furniture, destroyed the inside of the home and then came after her.
She said she feared for her life. She was pregnant with her first daughter.
Robinson tells a haunting story about being grabbed by her long hair, swung around the room and kicked.
She said she got away, ran out the back door, scrambled over a fence and hid in the bushes of a nearby church. Robinson prayed he wouldn't find her.
She said her prayers were answered. He didn't find her. She found sleep and sanctuary in the church bushes.
Still, she awoke the next morning and went back to him.
She didn't think she had a choice. She said she had nowhere else to go.
Robinson lives in Florida's Suwannee County.
Like thousands of other women, she said the relationship began when she was young and didn't start out badly. However, she said even after things changed for the worse, it took her years to leave the situation.
Many women, just like Robinson, say an abusive relationship often begins with control issues -- with men attempting to control every aspect of their lives including their friends, their attire and everyday activities.
Sometimes, relationships decline right after a marriage. Robinson said it can seem like a piece of paper makes a woman a piece of property.
Her plight is one that plays out every day in homes across the nation.
Every three seconds, an American falls prey to physical abuse at the hands of an intimate partner, totaling 10 million victims per year, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The Georgia Commission of Family Violence said one in four women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner, such as a spouse or significant other.
Women are far more likely to suffer domestic violence than men, law enforcement officials said. It is most common among women between the ages of 18-24, the NCADV said.
Tracking the numbers can be difficult because domestic violence cases often go unreported, experts say, and only a third of domestic violence victims seek medical care for injuries, the NCADV said.
Domestic violence has been dubbed the nation's silent epidemic, a monstrous plague raging and roaring just beneath the surface of society.
It's emotional and complicated. It bleeds across racial boundaries and income levels. It cuts into the core of society's most private, most fundamental building block -- the family unit.
The effects are not only physical. People facing domestic violence often find themselves with mental illnesses, such as severe depression and even suicidal behavior, that linger long after the physical wounds heal.
In the SunLight Project coverage area -- Valdosta, Dalton, Tifton, Thomasville, Moultrie and Milledgeville along with Live Oak, Jasper and Mayo, Fla., and the surrounding counties -- domestic violence experts and victims say escaping the pain is no small task.
Romantic and financial ties muddy the road to freedom, and women might choose to stay with their abusers for several reasons.
They want to keep the family together for the sake of the children. They fear increased violence if they try to get out. They don't have the money to live alone. They don't want to face the embarrassment of telling people what's going on behind closed doors.
They hold on to hope that the abuser, the person they once loved and perhaps still do, will change for the better. Some even blame themselves for the violence.
The list goes on and on, and the cycle of violence continues. Many women suffer harm several times before they leave for good.
Some never make it out alive.
Lives cut short
Since Maxine Blackwell took office as solicitor general of Baldwin County in 1992, 20 women have been murdered in domestic violence cases.
"That's way too many victims," Blackwell said, adding that none of them should have died in such a tragic and violent way. "I have personally worked with 22 victims since I've been with the county. I worked directly with two other victims, who were killed in other counties."
Even though those grim statistics are a reality, the numbers also are misleading in a sense, Blackwell said.
"We can tell you about the ones who have been killed by domestic violence, but the numbers that are unspoken are those women or men who are in the throes of the horribly abusive and violent relationships, who actually turn out to become suicide victims," Blackwell said. "We have more of those than the public know anything about."
Blackwell said there are many such cases directly related to abusive or unhealthy relationships that ultimately result in a suicide.
"So, we talk about domestic violence deaths, but to me, you've got to look at all the numbers," Blackwell said. "Of course, the murders are particularly horrible, but the suicides are another factor that no one discusses that we see quite, quite frequently."
Blackwell said if those statistics were counted with the domestic violence homicide cases, then those numbers would be staggering.
Blackwell said her office and law enforcement agencies have made meaningful strides in recent years to cut down on domestic violence deaths in Milledgeville and Baldwin County.
"I would have said, 'yes, we're in a crisis' from 1992 through 2005. We were seeing certainly crisis numbers (then)," Blackwell said. "The number of deaths were way out of proportion."
During the last few years, there have not been the overwhelming number of domestic violence deaths that the county experienced between 1992 and 2005, she said.
In the last year, 758 domestic violence cases were reported to the Baldwin County Solicitor's Office, but "those are just the ones we know about," said Linnesia Latimore, program director of victim services at the solicitor's office.
"We still see, of course, domestic violence on a daily basis," Blackwell said. "But I think that Baldwin County is an example of a community where we can show in the numbers that community awareness programs, strict treatment by law enforcement and our courts for domestic violence offenders, and public assistance programs for victims of domestic violence really do make a difference and save lives."
A problem found everywhere
"Chances are someone you work with, or go to church with, or within your friend group, is or was in the past a victim of domestic violence," said Shannon Morgan, executive director of the Serenity House shelter for domestic-violence victims and their families in Colquitt County.
Even those in abusive relationships may not want to acknowledge that reality, said Morgan, who has headed the shelter since October 2015. They make excuses for their partners; they blame themselves for setting him or her off; and they don't want to have the stigma attached to domestic violence situations.
Serenity House is one of many shelters in the region dedicated to caring for individuals and families caught in the turbulent storms of domestic violence. The house has an annual budget of about $280,000 and has capacity for 18 victims and their family members.
There are nearby shelters in Thomasville, Tifton and Valdosta that will accept residents from Moultrie when it is over capacity, and Serenity House reciprocates when needed.
The shelter might send families even farther away when the risk of continued violence is high, determined by factors such as the abuser's history of previous violence or access to firearms.
In 2016, Colquitt County received a little more than 1,000 domestic violence 911 calls, a number that's roughly the same as previous years.
For people looking from the outside in, understanding the dynamics in an abusive relationship can be hard, Morgan said.
"People don't understand why he's hurting her (but) she doesn't do anything about it," Morgan said. "These two people have a relationship together. Sometimes there's kids involved.
"What may seem very black and white for someone standing outside that situation, that woman has been manipulated, gaslighted so many times. It's all about the power and control for (the abuser)."
Capt. Maurice Holmes frequently deals with domestic violence in his role as commander of the Thomasville Police Department Criminal Investigations Division. But the issue is also personal for him.
One of his own relatives and her teenage son were murdered a decade ago in a domestic violence situation mid-afternoon April 23, 2007, on Glem Drive off U.S. 84 East.
His relative, in her mid-30s, was leaving her abusive husband.
"She had enough of the abusive situation with her and her children," Holmes said.
The woman had left her husband a few days earlier. She returned to the marital home to get clothing for her and her six children.
Her husband had changed locks on the doors and nailed windows shut so his estranged spouse could not get in.
When the woman could not get into the house, she called her husband, "and he was more than happy to let her in," Holmes said.
The man talked to his wife and the children as they packed, then went to his truck and got a shotgun. He killed his16-year-old son as the teen sat in the living room texting a friend, Holmes said.
He continued shooting in the house. Holmes' relative, who had been shot, ran outside and died on the front lawn.
The murderer was sentenced to two life prison terms for the deaths and an additional 50 years for aggravated assault on the surviving five children.
Holmes said the children will be scarred for life from the abuse they witnessed being inflicted on their mother.
"Then they witnessed their mother and brother lose their life through this tragic event," he added.
An emotional state sets in around April 23 each year, and a pall falls over the family, Holmes said.
A member of the board of directors at Halcyon Home, a Thomasville facility for battered women and their children, Holmes recalled his relative as "a beautiful, spirited, young lady."
"That was taken away," he said.
Holmes added that domestic violence is a haunting monster that casts ripple effects on so many.
"It doesn't go away. It's still with me," he said.
Holmes said part of his wife died when her family members were killed -- "and that doesn't come back."
The TPD handled 429 domestic violence cases in 2016. The Thomas County Sheriff's Office handled 170 the same year.
"It has no specific image. It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor," Elizabeth Nicholson said.
She's a therapist at Thomasville's Shaw Center for Women's Health. Close to a third of her patients are victims of emotional or physical abuse.
Abusers can be charming, charismatic figures and can disarm even the most skeptical person, said Katora Printup, executive director of the Northwest Georgia Family Crisis Center in Dalton, which provides shelter and advocacy for victims of domestic violence.
Printup also says there's a myth that domestic abuse is a problem of working class or lower income families.
"This is something that goes on everywhere. People in all income levels, all professions, every education level, all races and ethnicities are affected by this," she said.
Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk answered a domestic violence call during his first term in the 1990s where a man was holding his wife and daughter hostage.
When he got to the house, Paulk said he discovered the man was a good friend and he knew the whole family by name. That didn't stop the man from pointing a shotgun right at him, and Paulk had to jerk the gun from the man's hand.
"You never know who is going to attack you," Paulk said. "(Domestic violence) covers all parts of society. In my 17 years (as sheriff), I've seen highly educated people, doctors, lawyers that are abusers. It's not limited to a certain group of people."
The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Charles Oliver, Eve Guevara, Will Woolever, Alan Mauldin and Patti Dozier, along with the writers, Desiree Carver, Thomas Lynn and team leader John Stephen. To contact the team, email firstname.lastname@example.org.