Tuesday 22nd June 2021: Today, Women’s Aid, a leading national domestic violence organisation, releases its Annual Impact Report for 2020. The report details the 29,717 contacts made with Women’s Aid frontline services including the 24hr National Freephone Helpline and its Dublin-based Face-to-Face support services last year. During these contacts, 24,893 disclosures of domestic abuse against women including coercive control were made. Support workers also heard 5,948 disclosures of abuse against children (30,841 disclosures in total). The report provides an insight into the levels and forms of abuse experienced by women and children in homes and relationships across Ireland. The organisation says that the reality is that thousands of women are being subjected to high levels of emotional, physical, sexual and economic abuse. The Covid-19 pandemic made the crisis level of domestic violence in Ireland more visible.
Sarah Benson, CEO of Women’s Aid, says:
“These statistics are shocking. The 43% increase in the numbers of women reaching out to Women’s Aid for support during the most difficult of years, is staggering. However, these figures are only the tip of the iceberg of the numbers of people who are suffering at the hands of those closest to them and who need protection and support. One in four women in Ireland are targeted during their lifetime by current or former partners, a shocking one in five will have been abused by the time they are just 25 years old – many for the first time as teenagers in their earliest intimate relationships.”
Ms Benson continues:
“Behind each ‘statistic’ we talk about are women we know. Women in our families, in our circle of friends, in our workplaces and at the school gates. Women who are trying to protect and keep safe themselves and their children in the face of unrelenting and devastating abuse. Women disclosed to us that they had been beaten, strangled, burned, raped and had their lives threatened. They told us about being denied access to the family income to feed and clothe themselves and their children and being stalked and humiliated online. The impacts of abuse experienced by women are wide-ranging and can be long term. Women disclosed to our support workers that they had experienced: broken bones, nerve damage, constant fear and hyper-vigilance, complete isolation from family and friends, suicide ideation, job loss, poverty and homelessness. Women also disclosed that they had been beaten during their pregnancy and some had lost their baby because of the abuse.”
The organisation says that it is heart-breaking to listen to women as they describe their concern for their children who have witnessed and overheard the abuse against themselves as well as incidents of direct emotional, physical and sexual abuse against their children. In 2020, there were 5,948 disclosures of abuse of children made to Women’s Aid, including children being beaten with weapons, sexual abuse, constant and degrading verbal abuse, being hurt when the abuser was trying to attack their mother and abuse or neglect during access visits.
The abuse of women and children post-separation is of particular concern for Women’s Aid and the Annual Impact Report includes a special spotlight on the Family Law System and its failure to adequately protect those at risk from domestic violence perpetrators. 39% of people in contact with Women’s Aid last year were looking for information, advocacy and referrals for legal matters.
According to Ms Benson;
“Separating from a controlling and abusive partner is difficult and a time of heightened risk. 24% of women contacting Women’s Aid last year were experiencing abuse from a former partner. Many of these women have children with their abuser and needed to access the Courts in relation to children’s matters. Both Women’s Aid’s on the ground experience and national research show that the Family Law system fails many women and children who are separating from a domestic abuser. The process is prolonged, costly and dis-empowering. It often results in unsafe custody and access arrangements which disregard the impact of domestic abuse including coercive control on children and overlook the risk of their direct abuse and/or exposure to domestic violence. The safety of the protective parent, usually the mother, is rarely, if ever, considered in custody and access hearings."
Ms Benson explains:
“We have a long history of the family law system letting down women and children who are subjected to domestic abuse, particularly in custody and access hearings. There is a silencing of women who have been abused. The voice of the child is not heard and vindicated as it should be. There is a pro-contact culture that does not consider risk to both the non-abusing parent or the child and which benefits domestic abuse perpetrators. Evidence of criminal proceedings against abusers, domestic violence orders and other risks are often ignored in custody and access hearings as irrelevant when they should be front and centre in considering safe contact for children, and the protective parent. This is dangerous, and must be corrected.”
Ms Benson adds:
“In many cases the court itself become a tool for an abuser who will relentlessly drag women, and children, back for even minor grievances as a pretext to continue to control and torment their former partners. Not uncommonly, women are being accused of concepts like ‘parental alienation’ while there is a failure to recognise and understand the coercive controlling abuse she and the children are actually being subjected to. When the Family Law system dismisses women and children’s experiences of abuse and prioritises the right to contact of abusive fathers over the right to safety of children, this can be utterly devastating. Mothers feel they are unable to protect their children and that they cannot truly escape abuse, even after leaving.”
Women’s Aid acknowledges opportunities at this moment in time to reform both the Family and the Criminal Law systems. This presents Ireland with a chance to radically improve the experiences and outcomes of women and children going through the difficult and dangerous process of separating from an abuser. With the Family Justice Oversight Group working within the Department of Justice and Family Courts Bill going through the Oireachtas, among other important initiatives, there is a chance to embed an explicit recognition that domestic abuse including coercive control and its impacts in family separation are a critical factor in all family law proceedings, not just those that relate to protective orders under the Domestic Violence Act. Training and awareness for all professionals and agencies involved in courts proceedings and screening for domestic abuse are also required.
Ms Benson concludes:
“The system can and should act to help break the coercive bond that is controlling women and children. As a society, we need to listen to their voices and finally put safety first in Family Law. These longer term reforms are critical. However, the is a more urgent need to strengthen an already under-resourced and over-burdened Family Law system against an expected tsunami of cases delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions. Family Law always appears to be the ‘poor relation’ when it comes to investment in our legal system, which is inexplicable given the enormous impact these courts have on the lives of so many. It is time for this to change because lives depend upon it.”
Photocall: 9am, Tuesday 22nd June at the Dermot Morgan chair, Merrion Park. Available for interview and photos – Sarah Benson CEO of Women’s Aid and Linda Smith, Manager of the Women's Aid 24hr National Freephone Helpline.
Launch webinar information:
For more information contact Christina Sherlock, email@example.com or 0879192457.
Further Notes to editors/producers: