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"I feel constantly suffocated": The domestic violence epidemic raging behind closed doors of Covid-19

The first part of Noteworthy’s in-depth investigation into domestic abuse finds that services are dangerously underfunded during the coronavirus crisis.

DOMESTIC ABUSE CHARITIES remain seriously underfunded despite a Government promotion campaign urging victims to reach out for help during the Covid-19 pandemic, campaigners have warned.

Organisations working on the frontline are concerned that their services could be overwhelmed and that refuges lack the necessary resources – including personal protective equipment (PPE), accommodation and staff – to keep victims and workers safe.

Over the past two weeks, Noteworthy has been talking to the people working with victims of domestic abuse including social services, domestic abuse refuges, women and children’s charities, therapists and gardaí.

We have also gathered accounts of what is happening to women, men and children on the ground, looking at what responses are making a difference and what more needs to be done to safely see through people through the Covid-19 crisis.

Our investigation shows that:

  • The Department of Justice’s swift response with the Still Here campaign and €160,000 to help community and voluntary groups in their work has been welcomed. However, Safe Ireland – a charity which campaigns on domestic abuse and also acts as a de facto umbrella body for the 37 refuges and bodies around Ireland, including Women’s Aid – estimates that additional funding of €1.6 million is needed urgently for accommodation, PPE, technology and professional staff during the crisis.
  • Operation Faoiseamh, the Garda response to domestic abuse, is being widely praised by those working in support groups. The explicit exclusion of people fleeing people from domestic abuse from the 2km confinement rule has been welcomed. But refuges are concerned that the awareness campaign could lead to an unmanageable situation at their services unless they receive more resources.
  • Communal refuges are emerging as a potential breeding ground for Covid-19 and there have been confirmed cases in at least two refuges in Ireland. Refuges have reported that they are not being provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) and that residents and staff who fall ill are not receiving a quick turn-around on Covid-19 tests.
  • Getting to courts to secure protection or barring orders has become a struggle because of an abuser’s constant presence, lack of transport in rural areas or for those with small children.

In the first of two articles looking at the impact of domestic and child abuse for people who are trapped with their tormentors during the Covid-19 crisis, we are exploring what it’s like for women and men experiencing abuse and violence right now and, beyond this pandemic, what medium to long-term changes would help secure a safer Ireland for everyone.

  • Part two our investigation uncovers the particular risks for children in abusive situations during this pandemic.
  • We want to note that every organisation interviewed for today’s article stressed that there is still support and help available should you need it, and that if you are experiencing domestic abuse, please look at StillHere.ie for information and help.

On the ground now

Trapped at home in lockdown, one caller to Women’s Aid said there was no escape from her abuser, so she had to ring their helpline from the car. “I feel like I’m having a breakdown here, I feel constantly suffocated,” she told the helpline. “He’s watching me from the porch right now.”

The coronavirus crisis is throwing up many distressing stories similar to that caller’s, says Gillian Dennehy, services manager with Women’s Aid.

“Women are being spat at in the face by abusers claiming they have Covid-19. We are hearing of ex-partners where the abuse has gotten worse and access to the children is being used as a tool of abuse.”

Refuges say that immunosuppressed women or those with health problems have been taunted by abusive partners. Some partners are deliberately refusing to wash their hands or socially distance before returning home.

“These are tactics and tools to keep someone in fear, along with controlling the food and the finances,” says Sarah Benson, CEO of Women’s Aid.

WOMENS AID 609 Sarah Benson, CEO of Women's Aid. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Geraldine Mullane, project leader at Cuan Saor, a women’s refuge in Clonmel, south Tipperary, says that abuse victims often manage money week-to-week. She says:

They are now seeing their money withheld and they can’t buy essentials. There was a double week welfare payment to reduce footfall in post offices, but the effect of that was that the money was gone in one week – often spent on off-license alcohol sales by abusers – and mothers struggled to feed their children in week two.

Aoibhneas women’s refuge in north county Dublin recorded a 51% increase in calls to its helpline in March. “This is a very sharp and considerable increase,” says CEO Emma Reidy.

“While we have seen acute demand, we have also seen some real quiet spells, and some calls are not being made. We are hearing women on the 24-hour helpline who know that they may need to leave their homes, but they’re afraid that they may have had exposure to Covid-19 or that they may be exposed to it if they come into refuge.”

Male victims of domestic violence are also suffering – Seán Cooke, CEO of the Men’s Development Network, which runs a helpline for male victims of domestic abuse and also runs a treatment group for male perpetrators of violence, notes that their helplines have seen a slight increase in callers. 

“The themes of what we are hearing remain broadly the same,” says Cooke.

Heightened anxiety and stress in the home, walking on eggshells, being afraid of saying the wrong thing. We need people to know that our helplines are open and we have not stopped working.

With the support of additional funding from the Department of Justice, the network has broadened its hours to be available on Saturdays and Sundays as well as weekdays.

Statistics from Cosc, the national office for the prevention of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, show that 15% of women and 6% of men in Ireland suffer severe domestic abuse. Whereas 29% of women report the crime to gardaí, just 5% of men do.

Throughout the sector, there is concern that a successful Government awareness campaign is rightly urging people to avail of domestic abuse services – especially refuges – but that these services are not receiving adequate funding and support.

“I was sitting at home when this issue was discussed on the Late Late Show,” says Geraldine Mullane.

I thought that it is great it is being highlighted but also: oh Lord, what will this bring on top of us? We were under-resourced to start with – how will refuges be able to manage it?

Other countries have seen domestic abuse concerns surge during the global crisis. China recorded an increase in domestic abuse during its lockdown, with Weiping, a Beijing-based women’s rights organisation, receiving three times more calls than usual.

Tunisia recorded over 40 cases involving abused women in the first few days in April, a five-fold increase compared to the same period last year, and has set up a free helpline. New Zealand recorded a 20% spike in domestic abuse cases in the days after the country implemented its lockdown.

In New York, which has specialist domestic abuse courts with experts from clerk to judge level – a model that Sarah Benson says she would like to see in Ireland – temporary protection orders have been extended.

Escaping the home

Of 3,343 barring orders applied for in Ireland in 2018, only 946 (28%) were granted, compared to 30% in 2017 and 50% in 2016. Safety orders, which do not force a person to leave the home but prevents them from being violent or threatening, were granted for just 2,327 of 7,280 applications (32%).

Court hearings are still taking place every day at the moment, particularly for barring and protection orders, and staff are still working in the courts including at Dublin’s main family law court at Dolphin House.

However, some victims are struggling to get out and secure a protection order because the abuser is now with them 24/7. Services are trying to reach more victims remotely including through phone and online chat: Women’s Aid, for instance, has expanded its morning drop-in service to a specialist phone line that is open from 9.30am-4.30pm.

“Some women are taking the risk and going to the car to make a call, but we know other women may not feel safe to chat at all,” says Dennehy. “This is a consistent issue for women but the added layer of his constant presence limits her options.”

Over-65 domestic abuse victims are vulnerable: they are being told to cocoon at home at the same time as being acutely conscious of the particular risks they could face from contracting Covid-19.

In recent years, refuges nationwide have experienced an increase in the number of women over 65 presenting for support, according to Reidy.

They have endured decades of abuse because they could not contemplate, financially or otherwise, walking away.

Coercive control

New laws against coercive control were introduced in the 2018 Domestic Violence Act. The crime is defined in law as “knowingly and persistently [engaging] in behaviour that is controlling or coercive, has a serious effect on a relevant person and [that] a reasonable person would consider likely to have a serious effect on a relevant person” and includes a “fear that violence will be used be against him or her or serious alarm or distress that has a substantial adverse impact on his or her usual day-to-day activities”.

Men or women can be victims or perpetrators of coercive control; Women’s Aid says it includes all or some forms of domestic abuse including emotional, physical, financial and sexual, which traps a person in a relationship and makes it impossible or dangerous to leave.

Women who experience domestic abuse have their activities highly controlled, says Mullane, of the Cuan Saor refuge – and right now the conditions are especially ripe for it.

“We all know how difficult it is to go shopping at the moment, and it’s taking longer than usual with queues outside the supermarket. A woman may now be in the queue for an extra 20 minutes before she gets in, but her partner might not make that allowance for her, and she may also have the added pressure of having to bring the children with her because he won’t mind them.”

Domestic Abuse Stats Source: safeireland

Benson says that while the new coercive control law is sound, there remains insufficient resources to police it.

“Coercive control is indictable, but to effectively police and prosecute it requires a mindset change in the justice system. Coercive control is recognition of a series of tactics [such as isolating a person from friends or family; controlling where they go, who they see, what they eat and where they sleep; repeatedly putting them down; controlling their finances; and repeatedly putting them down], any one of which may not be a criminal offence in isolation. That is a challenge for the system.”

Access denied, access abused

Coercive control is far from the only issue facing the judiciary when it comes to domestic abuse during Covid-19. Men and women are also seriously concerned where an abusive ex-partner is using the virus as an excuse to withhold access or are not returning the children.

Courts are generally not treating access orders as urgent but reduced public transport and childcare issues, as well as the dominant presence of an abuser, mean many people are finding it hard to get to court even for interim barring orders or protection orders. In any case, they may be afraid of having to go to a courtroom for fear of contracting Covid-19.

When the Covid-19 crisis eases, services are concerned that there will be a backlog of court cases which could lead to longer delays for victims of domestic abuse.

Sarah Benson of Women’s Aid predicts:

Every breach of access and maintenance, every woman whose separation or divorce has to be finalised – all of this will come on top of an already overburdened family law system.

“We need a mechanism for a judge to remotely grant orders and it needs to be put in place now and beyond the emergency: this would really help create solutions for women in rural areas, address childcare problems, and relieve pressure on the courts system.”

Benson’s backlog concerns are echoed by Mullane, project leader at Cuan Saor. “We had a court support worker in court with women yesterday. These women had been trying to get childcare so that they could show up in court, because they were anxious and fearful of the implications of breaching court orders. They showed up anyway and were told that their cases were being deferred to June.”

Interim barring orders

With courts not working to full capacity, neither are solicitors. Family law solicitor Sandra McAleer is now working from home to adhere to social distancing restrictions.

shutterstock_1219926067 Dolphin House in Dublin, where the family law court is still sitting. Source: Shutterstock/Derick Hudson

“Only about five or six cases per day were being heard in Dolphin House [before Easter], whereas we would normally expect between 60 and 80 per day,” she says. “They would always have been closed for Easter, and emergency sittings continue as always.

In one day before Easter, McAleer dealt with three interim barring orders based on physical violence. “Barristers are still covering these cases for me, but we are also seeing more instances of financial abuse. The money has stopped: people are down to €350 per week. ‘What are you spending that money on?’ is a constant question.

In one of my cases where there’s already a history of domestic abuse, he was at home, not working, and drinking in the sitting room. She asked if she could get food for the kids and it sparked a row which led to him giving her a black eye. She waited until he was asleep before going to the courts for an IBO. It was granted and she was escorted home by Gardai.

After serving an IBO, Gardai usually give a person time to pack a bag and, after seven days, there will be a full hearing. “It doesn’t mean that the complainant will automatically get the IBO renewed after seven days,” says McAleer.

“The judge may equally only grant a protection order as a [further] interim measure. But it is absolutely right that the courts give a fair hearing to both parties.”

From home to homelessness

People removed from their place of residence under a barring order may face temporary homelessness, but women and children who have fled their home to escape domestic abuse are four times more likely than the general population to end up homelessness.

A woman who is forced to leave a violent home is not explicitly defined in law as homeless, is not treated as an emergency case and, with services, has to spend a lot of time trying to secure a place to live, says Safe Ireland co-CEO Mary McDermott.

McDermott says that a national response is needed to help refuges through this crisis. “Some services are working with local authorities, hotels and Airbnbs [which have seen occupancy plummet] in their areas to secure additional, safe accommodation for women and children in the community. This is based, however, on a local relationship, whereas we need a national directive or protocol; services also need resources to source accommodation and rehome women and children where necessary.”

Safe Ireland has submitted a proposal to the Department of Social Protection that women and children in need of immediate relocation as a result of domestic violence are provided with emergency rent supplement for a period of three months or for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis.

Reidy says it is a “national scandal” that almost half of women fleeing domestic abuse end up homeless and are not counted in the statistics. It is a major disincentive to seek help in the context of statistics from Women’s Aid which show that 230 women and 16 children have been killed since records began in 1996, including five women killed violently in 2019. Almost 90% killed by a man known to them including 56% who were murdered by a current or former husband, partner or boyfriend.

No refuge in refuge?

shutterstock_1240642657 Communal spaces such as shared kitchen are a feature - and risk - in refuges during the pandemic. Source: Shutterstock/Krysja

Covid-19 has reduced functional bed capacity in refuges due to necessary infection and safety protocols. There are confirmed cases of Covid-19 in at least two of Ireland’s nine communal refuges. Some refuge staff are also off sick and Noteworthy understands that some who were tested over two weeks ago, and have self-isolated since, have still not received Covid-19 test results.

The Department of Health says that it “anticipates that the imminent increase in testing capacity and significantly improved turnaround times will prevent a situation where delays are affecting key services like refuges” and added that it supports the work they are doing. 

Shared kitchen and bathroom facilities are potential sites for an outbreak of Covid-19, says McDermott.

In one location, the women have been re-accommodated in community-based housing. In other locations, staff and women have had to work out kitchen rota systems. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is limited and many have to purchase their own equipment, with some families in isolation and staff having to self-isolate.

“Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus how unsuitable communal facilities are at any time, not just now.”

Emma Reidy, CEO of Aoibhneas, the communal refuge in north county Dublin, says that they are “adhering to social distancing where possible”. The refuge has a communal kitchen and living area, as well as a common play space for children. Each of their rooms is for a single woman and/or her children and has an ensuite bathroom and kitchenette with microwave and a fridge stocked with food.

“We’re using intercoms and phones to manage interactions with women and families,” says Reidy. “We are only operating at about 50% capacity and have moved some women and children into the community. We are accommodating the smaller family sizes in the refuge at the moment.

“We’re still checking in throughout the day and helping with the delivery of food and medication. The staff team is providing support to families in the community. Where a mam and children have to self-isolate, staff are assisting.”

Reidy says that they have had to secure their own PPE at Aoibhneas.

virus-outbreak-britain Many refuges are having to source their own personal protective equipment (PPE). Source: Jon Super/PA Images

Safe Ireland is also concerned that, where mothers in refuge fall ill with Covid-19, they are not able to mind their own children, but refuge staff cannot do so either. “We understand that Tusla is drawing up an informal Garda-vetted network of foster carers, possibly from their own staff,” says McDermott. Tusla declined to comment on this matter.

An audit by Safe Ireland in the first week of Covid-19 restrictions found that there were 104 women and 127 children in refuge. “Services have remained at the necessary reduced capacity since,” says McDermott.

“This does not mean that women can’t look for accommodation support. Services will do what they can to secure safe accommodation, but we need resources.”

Ending domestic violence

Survivors of abuse and their advocates believe that, with the right will, the level of domestic abuse happening here reduced.

Move Ireland and the Waterford-based Men’s Development Network work with male perpetrators of violence to explore the root causes.

“Men who come to us are usually self-referrals or referred by the courts or social welfare services,” says Cooke, CEO of the Men’s Development Network.

“We see a mix of societal and personal issues with our referrals. Power and control are issues, but there is no excuse for violence. Some men think it is okay to be violent. On our Choices programme, we go through a range of different modules exploring gender and gender roles, anger management, addressing triggers and communication with partners.

“It is about change behaviour and getting them to acknowledge that their behaviour is destructive, as well as understand that these are choices they are making.”

Source: World Health Organization

This crisis, he says, has opened up an opportunity for a greater cultural understanding of domestic violence.

“[Abuse against women] is a problem for society as a whole – including men – to address. We need a wider national campaign around domestic violence, gender equality and violence against women – including consent and rape.

We need to look at the social conditioning that perpetuates violence and inequality. It’s long past time to ask: do we want to live in a society that accepts domestic violence as okay?

McAleer says that we need domestic abuse to be treated more seriously in legislation and that, whereas a person who abused a work colleague or stranger would be arrested, victims of abuse have to seek a protection order which means they may still have to live with their abuser.

In the immediate crisis, Safe Ireland has called for:

  • Funding of €1.6 million from Tusla to be spent on providing accommodation, PPE, technology and professional staff;
  • Expedited on-site testing and results for refuge residents and staff;
  • A safe placement if a mother in refuge falls ill;
  • Emergency rent supplement where women and children need immediate relocation;
  • Priority access to courts where domestic abuse is an issue, as well as the exploration of remote access to courts.
  • Beyond Covid-19, as a new Government takes up office, affordable housing as a right of people escaping domestic abuse, although relevant agencies should support a victim to remain in their own home where possible.

Beyond the crisis, Women’s Aid CEO Sarah Benson says we have a number of opportunities to help domestic abuse victims including capturing better data on the relationship between perpetrators and victims, and treating the victim as more than merely a witness.

WOMENS AID 528 (1) Mary O'Connor from Women's Aid at an installation by artist Amy Heffernan last year, showing silhouettes of women who have died due to domestic abuse. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

“We need to consider how to support the victim to come forward and how evidence should be handled,” Benson says.

Scotland, for example, has a dedicated domestic violence prosecutor with experts from specialist organisations embedded into the process. “The impact on the victim can be challenging – or devastating,” says Benson. “But Scottish law does not look at the proof of the impact on victim but instead focuses on the objective behaviour of the perpetrator within coercive control guidelines.”

Another initiative to be looked at could be the “continuity of supports” such as those in the UK, where independent domestic violence advocates start the journey with the victim, helping to gather and curate components of their story so that they don’t have to keep telling it to different agencies again and again.

Benson’s colleague, Gillian Dennehy, says that we will need to address the fundraising shortfall in the sector caused by economic contraction, the temporary closure of charity shops and the cancellation of major fundraising events.

As a people, we will also need to address wider societal questions, she says. “Domestic abuse is about who holds power in economics and politics, as well as the portrayal of women in pornography.

“Good relationship and sexuality education would mean teaching that everyone has the right to be themselves, nobody has a right to control someone else, and that you don’t own the person you’re in a relationship with.”

***

Part two of our investigation, which you can read here, uncovers the particular risks for children in abusive situations during this pandemic.

  • Women’s Aid 24hr National Freephone Domestic Violence Helpline: 1800 341900 and WomensAid.ie
  • Local refuges around Ireland run helplines with web and email support. Safe Ireland have a full list.
  • The Men’s Development Network can be contacted on 1800 816588.
  • See StillHere.ie for a comprehensive overview of the help out there.

***

This investigation was carried out by Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers, as well as with support from the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs.

You can support our work by helping to fund one of our other investigation proposals or submitting an idea for a story. Click here to find out more >>

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