GASTONIA - Fighting back tears, Kim Burkett Merrill remembers her mother, Barbara Jean Burkett. The school teacher was murdered almost 10 years ago by her father, who then took his own life.
"It just hit us like a ton of bricks,” said Merrill. “You just don't expect something like this to happen in your family.”
Burkett is one of the 23 women, men and children who have died as a result of domestic violence in Gaston County over the last decade. Wednesday, survivors and advocates came together to unveil a new wedding dress display, honoring their memories and calling for change as part of domestic violence awareness month. It kicks off in October.
"This sends a message that is meaningful,” said Sheriff Alan Cloninger. “It sends a message that we all can learn from and let's hope our community can learn from it also.”
So far this year, there have been no domestic violence related deaths in Gaston County, but officials at the Shelter of Gaston County say they are helping more families than ever in their new facility. Two weeks ago, a record 44 women and children sought refuge under their roof.
"We also need to remember the survivors as well who are struggling to break free from abusive relationships and who are trying to rebuild their lives," said shelter counselor Jennifer Cannon.
The dresses will be displayed in buildings around the county throughout the month of October.
So far there have been 46 domestic violence related homicides in North Carolina this year, according to the NC Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Last year, there were 74.