Women's Aid today called for a YES vote in the Children's Referendum on 10th November. The leading national domestic violence organisation, which has been working in Ireland for nearly 40 years to make women and children safe from abuse, has added its voice in support of the 31st Amendment to the Irish Constitution. According to Women's Aid, the passing of the referendum will guarantee children a voice in court and give paramount consideration to their best interests in Family Law cases. Women's Aid hopes that this will lead to safer outcomes for children in custody, access and guardianship cases in the context of domestic violence. As it stands, children living with domestic violence are often not protected in Family Law proceedings, with decisions made that disregard the impact of domestic violence on children and which ignore the risk of continuing abuse during and after separation. The Children's Referendum gives Irish society an opportunity to change this and make children safer from domestic violence.
Margaret Martin, Director of Women's Aid, said: "This increased protection will only happen if the risk and impact of both direct abuse and witnessing domestic violence are taken into consideration when the best interests of the child are determined. International research and Women's Aid's own experience shows not only that domestic violence and child abuse co-exist, but also that witnessing domestic violence against a non-abusive parent, usually the mother, is a recognised form of emotional abuse of children. Women's Aid believes that it is essential that the safety of the child both from physical and emotional harm due to witnessing domestic violence is part of the determination of the child's best interest."
Ms Martin, Director of Women's Aid, explained: "In 2011, 44% of all callers to the Women's Aid National Freephone Helpline disclosed that children were being directly abused or were present in the home where domestic violence was happening. Women have told us that their children were being hit, smacked, constantly shouted at, and in some cases, sexually abused. Many children will witness their mother being shouted at, threatened, physically assaulted and at times will see their mother being raped. Where they do not directly see the abuse occurring they may overhear abusive incidents, or will see the aftermath of it such as bruises, broken bones, damaged furniture and belongings. At times, the perpetrator of the abuse will deliberately target children as a way to hurt both them and their mother."
Ms Martin said that many women, who call the Women's Aid Helpline, worry about how best to protect their children. She added, "It is heart-breaking to listen to women who, with their children, are living in a constant state of fear. Many women will seek to leave the abusive situation when they become aware of the risk to their children. Unfortunately, the abuse can continue even when women end the relationship. Far from ending the abuse, this time can be very dangerous for women and children. Many women reported that abusive former partners were continuing to use court ordered access visits to abuse both them and children."
Ms Martin continued: "Abuse during access visits disclosed to Women's Aid last year included women and children being physically, emotionally and sexually abused, abusers threatening to kill the woman and the children, abusers calling women telling them that the children were left unattended somewhere and abusers not picking up or returning children as arranged. Mothers described how they were left in impossible situations because the children return from access visits withdrawn, sad and saying that they don't want to go in future. Women in this situation face a desperate choice. Refuse to comply with Court ordered arrangements and face sanction or allow the abuser access to the children which places them at increased risk. This situation cannot continue."
Women's Aid has long advocated for changes to the Family Law system to increase protection and safety for women and children in domestic violence situations. Women's Aid also welcomed the commitment given at the weekend by Minister Alan Shatter to remove the In Camera restrictions for the reporting of Family Law proceedings. Women's Aid believes that this will lead to a more open, transparent and consistent Family Law system for those affected by domestic violence.
Ms Martin concluded: "It is time to protect children living with domestic violence. By voting YES Women's Aid believes that we will increase the safety and well-being of children in Family Law proceedings and create a better understanding of the links between domestic violence and child abuse. We urge the Irish people to vote YES on 10th November and help make children safer from domestic violence."
The Women's Aid National Freephone Helpline 1800 341 900 is open from 10am to 10pm, 7 days a week and is available, free of charge, throughout the Republic of Ireland.
For more information contact Christina Sherlock or Laura Shehan on (01) 678 8858 or (087) 919 2457.
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