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'If I didn't run, he would have killed me stone dead': Domestic abuse survivors say more support is needed

Over the course of the pandemic some people have been trapped with their abusers 24-7, Órla Ryan writes.

File photo
File photo
Image: PA Images

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IS widespread across Ireland and the Covid-19 lockdowns have exacerbated the problem.

Over the past 14 months some people have been trapped with their abusers 24-7 without the respite of work or other activities.

One in four women in Ireland have been abused by a current or former partner.

One in seven men have also been a victim of domestic violence, but males represent just 5% of reported crimes.

About 43,000 calls were made to gardaí last year in relation to domestic abuse, representing a 16% hike on 2019 numbers.

More than 7,600 criminal charges for crimes involving an element of domestic abuse were reported in 2020, up 24% on the previous year. Over 4,000 criminal charges were referred for breaches of domestic abuse court orders last year, up 25% on 2019 figures. 

Noteworthy previously took an in-depth look at domestic abuse amid the pandemic.

A huge number of domestic abuse cases don’t make it to court or are never reported in the first place.

Domestic violence charities expect a further increase in the above numbers as Covid-19 restrictions ease in the coming months.

Audrey* is a survivor of domestic violence. Her ex-partner subjected her to physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

Over the years she has been to court on numerous occasions – seeking safety orders and barring orders, and again when her ex breached these orders and would call her or show up at her door.

This was an incredibly difficult process for her and she said more support needs to be put in place for domestic abuse survivors navigating the court system.

Audrey left her partner when she had a newborn baby, now a teenager. She said many women fear leaving their partner or showing up at a refuge because they are scared their children will be taken into care.

“Although there are a lot of women coming forward, there’s a lot of women reluctant to come forward. They will continue to suffer the abuse or they will stay on friends’ sofas because they have the fear of their children being taken off them.

“My journey was a very long road. I stayed in various women’s refuges and some were more equipped than others. When a woman shows up at a refuge she is traumatised, as was the case in my situation.

“The first port of call should be a GP, then a counsellor – there should be counsellors on site – and there should also be a play therapist on site. So while the mother is dealing with her trauma, the child is with the play therapist.

“These women are traumatised – they have suffered mental, physical and sexual abuse, and they may have put up with that a long time before they actually made the move to leave.”

Audrey’s young son was briefly taken into care before a judge ruled that he should be returned to her.

“Because of the horrific stuff that I went through, I knew I had to get out [of the family home]. I had to run one time because I knew if I didn’t run I was going to be killed stone dead. These men are that manipulate, they will always have an alibi.

“I wanted my child with me in the refuge, but the social workers were saying no. I was saying I’m the victim here, I want my child here with me. Thank God the judge sided with me and said there’s no better place for a child to be than with his mother.

“A lot of women won’t go to refuges because they’re too scared – even though they’re victims they’re terrified that their children are going to be removed.”

Audrey and her son had various stints in a women’s refuge, sometimes staying there for months at a time. She said this is, of course, not an ideal environment for a child but can be the safest option. Staying in the refuge gave her stability while she got back on her feet.

The most important bit was the safety element – you knew when you went to bed at night, you were safe. Okay, you might not have a huge space, but you could bath your child, you could read them a bedtime story. And when you felt strong enough you could cook for yourself with the other women.

“My son had his first day at school from a refuge. Although it wasn’t the best possible start for him, I could send him to school spotlessly clean after having a good night’s sleep. He remained in that school, the whole way up to age 12.

“The apartment that I’m in now, I’ve been in for 12 years. I gave him a stable environment the whole way throughout his childhood. Thank God, I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Audrey said there are not enough refuges in Ireland – something that will become even more evident when more people seek help as Covid-19 restrictions ease.

‘I feared for my life’

Audrey was with her son’s father for about a year. He was not violent in the early days of their relationship but his behaviour gradually started to change.

“I noticed the change in him after I got pregnant. It was horrific abuse in every way, shape and form.

“And then when my child was born, he started getting very, very controlling. I contacted his parents because I had a young baby and their words to me were that they thought having a child would change him. So he obviously had a violent history that I wasn’t aware of. They advised me to get miles away for safety – his own parents said that.

I feared for my life because I knew at one stage it wasn’t going to be ‘just’ a black eye. I knew my child’s father would have had intent to kill me. He was that possessed that he would have killed me rather than allow me to move on with my life.

“A lot of women are killed by their partners and I know of two women who have taken their own lives because they couldn’t cope with the stress any longer. And those are just the people I know, there are many more.”

Audrey said she made a plan to run away while her partner was out of the house. She didn’t know who to contact so called her baby’s nurse who in turn put her in touch with a women’s refuge in another county.

“It was terrifying [to leave] because I was just going into the unknown, nobody in the family had ever had any problems like this in their life. It was a frightening experience going into refuge as well.

I had to have everything timed. So I knew what time the train was leaving and while he was gone I went outside and got into a taxi. I was on the train by the time he would have come back.

“Even though your mind is all over the place and you’re in fear and you’re panicking, you have to make a plan. Even if your plan is just to get out of the house to get into a taxi and to ring Women’s Aid to get some support.”

Audrey got a number of safety or barring orders against her ex. He would continually breach them – calling her, showing up at her home and at one point showing up with gifts at a refuge she was staying in.

“My son’s father would have done everything to stalk me, he would have even phoned up women’s refuges pretending to be somebody else, a guard or whoever, to try to talk to me. He even started to stalk my sister at one point. These are the lengths he would go to.”

On one occasion her ex was briefly jailed for breaching a barring order. However, as soon as he got out, he breached the order yet again.

“I was settling back into my home and I got a phone call and it was him on the other end of the phone to tell me he was around the corner, how frightening was that?”

Zero-tolerance approach 

Audrey wants a zero-tolerance approach for people who breach barring orders in domestic abuse cases.

“If they break an order, put them into jail straight away. There should be a six-month mandatory sentence. The majority of men might think twice before breaching the order if they know they’re going to be arrested straight away and put behind bars.

They should have a zero-tolerance approach because it’s playing with women and children’s lives. If that was brought in and men knew what the consequences were going to be, they wouldn’t be as likely to offend.

“Now when they go to court the case could be adjourned for two years. So that means you have to keep going back to court and the judges are waiting to see if they’re going to reoffend within that time frame.

“But of course they are going to be on their best behaviour and, even though they could be intimidating you, they often get a suspended sentence at the end of it.”

Audrey said, in the years since her own court experience, the process and relevant legislation has improved but more should be done. She said gardaí, judges and social workers all need to take part in training that focuses on how to best support domestic abuse survivors.

She also wants all victims of domestic abuse to be allowed to appear in court via video link, rather than in person, as already happens in some cases.

“Women are not only physically and emotionally abused, they’re sexually abused too. It happened to me, my ex raped me. The court process can be very draining. I went down to five stone and lost my hair at one time, having to face my ex-partner for breaching an order. It can be very intimidating having to go to court and see your abuser.

“My ex actually nearly went for me in court one time. There are gardaí in the courtroom and at the time I had a court accompaniment with me, but it’s still very, very dangerous.

“You don’t know what’s going through a man’s mind – some men would sooner have you gone off the face of the earth, to feel they’ve won, especially when they have an order hanging over them.”

‘No going back’

Audrey knows first-hand how difficult it can be to leave an abusive partner, but would encourage anyone in that situation to seek help.

“You need to get into a safe place, you need to get help. I know it’s daunting, it’s terrifying, it’s nerve-racking, it’s everything, but you’ll get there.

“There’s no going back, because if you go back [to your partner], it’s only going to get worse and worse and worse. They’re also going to have that anger in them that you left them in the first place.

“Try to get out of that situation, they’re not going to change. Contact Women’s Aid, contact Safe Ireland. You are not alone.

When I went to the refuge, I couldn’t believe that so many women from all different age groups, from different backgrounds, were in there. There were professional people’s wives in these places. Until you actually go behind that door of the refuges and see what’s going on, you don’t realise.

“Some people think that it can only happen to a certain type of person but no, it’s happening in all walks of life. Unfortunately that’s the situation that we’re living in, and it’s happening all over the world,” she told us. 

Dedicated ministry

Safe Ireland – a national network of 37 organisations which support domestic abuse victims – said the pandemic has “proven to be a threat, but also an opportunity, for the DSGBV (Domestic, Sexual & Gender-Based Violence) sector – with all the burdens that implies”.

A spokesperson said: “We have been clear from the very beginning of this pandemic that Covid-19 did not cause domestic and sexual violence. It has exposed it.

“We have also been clear that this epidemic, and the quite phenomenal outpouring of communal empathy for those living with control and abuse that we have seen, has also fully revealed the inadequate, siloed and poorly resourced way in which we are responding to coercive control generally, and domestic violence specifically.”

Safe Ireland recently launched No Going Back, a report that sets out a vision to overhaul Ireland’s strategy to respond to the needs of survivors of domestic abuse.

The network has made four key recommendations:

  • A dedicated Minister and Ministry
  • Integrated and survivor focused policy and services
  • Sustainable and thriving specialist local services
  • A world-leading intervention and prevention strategy

Safe Ireland says the current national approach is disjointed and having a ministry dedicated to domestic violence could help streamline and improve the overall approach.

“The lives of survivors can be transformed by a systemic change to policy, practice and commissioning that promotes early intervention and reduces the prevalence, impact and tolerance of DSGBV at all levels.

“We need a dedicated Minister and Ministry for DSGBV with reach across all of the departments and agencies with which a survivor may interact, with a cross-sectoral inter-departmental budget and a Cabinet Standing Committee.”

Safe Ireland wants the country’s response to domestic abuse to be provided at local level by specialist interdisciplinary teams with knowledge of housing, legal, social protection and therapeutic responses, among others areas, “to stop extant piece-meal responses”.

“To sustain this level of expertise and stop the current ‘brain-drain’ from the DSGBV sector, services need to be adequately and sustainably resourced, with multi-annual budgets,” the group says.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has elicited a significant community response and awareness of DSGBV, in particular, the vulnerability of women and girls. It makes sense to utilise this public awakening to develop a strategy that addresses the root causes of sex and gender-based violence.”

When asked about calls to overhaul the current approach to handling domestic abuse cases, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said “tackling domestic abuse and providing supports for victims is a priority for the Minister and the Government”.

The spokesperson noted that there is ongoing collaborative work across the sector “to ensure an appropriate collective national response is in place that supports victims, provides for their needs, and holds perpetrators to account”.

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The Department of Justice is currently coordinating a review of the National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence. Safe Ireland is among the stakeholders taking part in this process.

The Justice Plan 2021 also commits to an audit of how responsibility for domestic, sexual and gender-based abuse is segmented across different government agencies “with a view to ensuring the services we have in place respond to the needs of victims”.

“This will ensure we have the right structures in place to enable the Government to respond to all of the issues related to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, not in a piecemeal way, but holistically and effectively. The Department of Justice has received a draft report from the auditors and this will be presented to Minister (Heather) Humphreys shortly,” the spokesperson said.

“In addition, a mapping exercise is being conducted to identify where gaps in supports exist and there is a commitment to addressing those gaps.”

They added that the department has made €4 million available to organisations working with victims of crime, up from €2 million in 2020. These grants cover court accompaniment, accompaniment to Garda interviews and to sexual assault treatment units, emotional support, counselling and referral to other services.

Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, has statutory responsibility for the care and protection of victims of DSGBV and are the primary funders of organisations that deliver frontline services.

Tusla is leading on the audit of the accommodation review and has presented a draft to the Monitoring Committee for discussion “with a view to achieving agreement on a response to Ireland’s needs”.

Garda training

Speaking in the Seanad recently, acting Justice Minister Heather Humphreys noted that members of An Garda Síochána receive training related to domestic abuse and coercive control.

Gardaí also have to complete a “comprehensive e-learning course on victim engagement, which will cover the rights of every victim of crime, with a particular focus on the needs of victims of sexual crimes and the special measures and protections that can be offered to them during investigations and court proceedings”, she said.

In relation to training for members of the court system, Humphreys stated: “Under the Modernisation Programme, the courts service have recently finished a pilot course for Trauma Informed Practice. This course focuses on staff awareness of how trauma can affect those who engage with the services of the courts. It is expected that this training will be rolled out to all staff in due course.

“In addition, staff who perform the role of Video Link Assistants are undertaking training in the area of Child Protection. The Courts Service is keenly aware of its obligations under the Victims of Crime Act 2017, and a number of information sessions were provided to staff in relation to this.”

Throughout the pandemic, An Garda Síochána has implemented Operation Faoiseamh to support victims of domestic abuse.

“The vulnerable and victims of abuse will continue to receive the highest priority response from An Garda Síochána,” a spokesperson noted in a statement.

They said gardaí continue to “liaise with and support our partners in State and non-State Agencies to facilitate continuity in respect of access to support services and Courts Services”.

“An Garda Síochána resources dedicated to the support of vulnerable and victims of domestic violence have not been affected during our response to the Covid-19 Pandemic.

“The Garda National Protective Services Bureau (GNPSB) and Divisional Protective Service Units (DPSU), now established in every Garda Division, supported by Divisional Victim Service Offices (DVSO) and front line Gardaí are all resources available to respond to these crimes and support these citizens.”

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Órla Ryan

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