Domestic Abuse

Epidemic meets Pandemic: Significant increase in domestic abuse during Covid-19

This is a special report I did on the significant increase in those seeking support for domestic abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic. This post contains a lot of information and statistics which were published over the course of two weeks in the Longford Leader.

The Domestic Violence services at Longford Women’s Link have been hit exceptionally hard since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw lockdowns and job losses force more and more people to stay at home for extended periods of time.

For those living with violence or other forms of abuse in the household, this has caused untold pain and suffering, prompting a significant increase in the number of victims seeking the help of Longford Women’s Link and other domestic abuse services.

From mid-March 2019 to mid-May of the same year, there were 81 women availing of the LWL services, with 16 of those requiring court accompaniment or crisis response.

Again, in 2021, that figure has risen to 108 women turning to Longford Women’s Link between mid-March and mid-May, 38 of whom needed crisis response.

That’s a 33% increase in the number of women seeking help since the same time period in pre-pandemic 2019 – and a whopping 137.5% increase in the number of victims needing court accompaniment or crisis response.

Those figures speak for themselves. And, unfortunately, the shocking statistics don’t end there.

LWL’s annual statistics for 2019 show that there were 5,594 interactions with 371 women – figures which rose significantly in 2020 when Covid-19 made prisoners of the nation.

In 2020, LWL reported 6,287 interactions with 410 women. That’s roughly 12% more interactions on the previous year, with 10% more women who have sought help with violent or abusive situations.

But the Domestic Violence team is happy that it got to provide that support at all, with 543 face-to-face interactions with women who needed help and a total of 177 court accompaniments since the pandemic began.

“What we’ve seen is that the epidemic has met the pandemic,” said Tara Farrell of LWL’s Domestic Violence Service.

“It’s nothing new for us that have been working in the sector, because it’s always been there, but the pandemic has really exposed it.

“And we could argue over and back whether there’s been an increase, or whether it’s just that we’re seeing it now because of the nature and all of the risk factors associated with domestic violence, and the pandemic exacerbating them.”

Longford Women’s Link is one of the few face-to-face services that stayed open at the height of the pandemic and the service has been the saving grace of many women who have found themselves in abusive situations caused by the added stress of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It was a difficult decision, because we had to think of not only the women, but the staff, and we need to think of their safety, as well,” Tara explained.

“And at the start of this, nobody knew what the outcome was going to be. We didn’t think we’d still be here. There was a certain amount of crisis response to get a plan in place. Then you’re six months into it, then you’re 12 months into it, and it really takes its toll.”

“We’ve become more finely-tuned towards that crisis response,” added Heather McKenna of the Domestic Violence Services.

“A huge part of that is our partnership with the Gardaí, and the follow-through there with them. A lot of our referrals would come from the guards.”

In fact, An Garda Síochána has taken a very pro-active response to domestic abuse throughout the pandemic.

“We always worked well enough with the Gardaí, but I think the pandemic really fostered that,” Tara agreed.

“There was this immediate crisis; the guards recognised it, we obviously have been working with it, and it’s… yes, I think it’s resulted in a really productive and positive relationship.”

‘His threats to kill me are real’: A mother’s journey with LWL to get a protection order

longford courthouse

I drove to LWL not knowing if it was the right thing to do. I have been managing his abuse for seven years now. I’m exhausted. It has to end.

When I arrive at reception, I ask to speak with someone about my husband. I hope they know what I really mean. I’m asked to take a seat. Shortly after, a woman comes and we go to a private room. A cup of coffee is offered. My mind is spinning.

I start off with words getting stuck in my throat but within a few minutes, I’m explaining all of the hurtful things he does to us. He watches my phone, locks me in the bedroom, doesn’t let me sleep at night, says I’m a bad mother and he is always sorry after he kicks that one same spot on my upper leg.

The woman tells me it is not okay for these things to happen to me and explains what a protection and interim barring order are. I’m relieved to hear her say that I’m the boss and she will follow my lead in responding to the violence. I know it’s getting worse. His threats to kill me are real; that feeling in my gut says it’s coming soon.

I decide to apply for a protection order and the woman helps me to type up the story of last night’s assault to put into an application form for the court. I’m surprised to hear that she can come to court with me today. It’s all happening very fast but I’m given time to be sure about my choices. I’m scared but I need to do this.

We talk about a safety plan. I didn’t realise all those things, like sleeping with the spare car keys under my pillow, are my safety skills. I’m too scared to park my car near the courthouse so the woman organises a taxi for me and she drives in front of us. We meet again at the courthouse and she offers me a small private room that I can lock and feel safe in until the judge is ready for me.

The woman has explained what will happen in the courtroom. It’s all a bit of a blur but I kind of know what to expect now.

It’s my turn now. We walk upstairs and the courtroom is empty except for some gardaí and solicitors. The woman shows me to a seat at the top of the courtroom. I swear on the bible to tell the truth. It feels so surreal. I’m shaking and the tears are filling my eyes again. The judge is reading my information. He looks at me and says this is very serious. He asks me if it is all true and I answer yes. I am then asked to sign the application and the judge tells me he is granting the protection order.

The judge says that an interim barring order is also an option but I’m too scared to put my husband out of the house just now. At least in the house I can tell what type of mood he is in and try to plan our safety around that. I’m given my protection order and everything is explained to me. I know now if he threatens me, hurts me or stalks me, I can call the gardaí and now they have more power to intervene.

I’m overwhelmed with so many emotions. I didn’t expect to feel guilty but the woman reassures me this is normal. She says it’s hard when our hearts love the person we first met and they then become violent. It’s like grieving. I can relate to this. I also feel safer now. We talk about how he will react and make a safety plan. I will keep my phone in my pocket at all times.

My children and I are going to come back and meet with the woman again tomorrow to make a safety plan with them and talk about the violence they have been experiencing. I also have to come back next month to the court to apply for a safety order. The woman explains this is the same as a protection order – it just lasts longer.

He is invited to come to the court too and the woman reassures me she will help me contact a solicitor and prepare for court next month.

Why doesn’t she just leave?

It seems like the easy solution, doesn’t it? She should just leave him and it will all be over. But that’s not the case at all, according to Tara Farrell and Heather McKenna of the LWL Domestic Violence Service.

“It’s a question we get asked a lot: ‘Why doesn’t she just leave? How can she stay?’ But there are so many complexities,” Tara explained.

“Maybe he has told her, ‘You’re useless, you’re nothing, nobody gives a damn about you. Who are you gong to go to? Everyone hates you. You can’t leave with those children. If you leave, I will kill them.’

“It’s not even about her – she’s not going to risk that. And I think sometimes, because in many cases she’s been coping for so long – I’m not saying it’s minimised – but sometimes it’s a case of, ‘well, look, I’m managing, we’re getting by; he didn’t hit me today; he might hit me tomorrow; and if he does, well, he’s sorry, or he’s not sorry, but look, it’s not that bad; I’m not in hospital’. Because you’re trying to cope. You’re trying to stay alive.”

“And the abuse doesn’t end after they leave,” Heather agreed. “I think, in the world’s mind, it does, but it actually doesn’t.

“In fact, it often gets more dangerous during that leaving phase. It keeps going. Especially if they’ve got kids together, it keeps going.

“So, what a lot of them say is that, when they’re living together, she can tell just from how he walks, or how he opens the door what type of mood he’s in, and she knows how to gauge how she behaves, then. And the children would be the same. So, it’s like she can read the temperature of the room, and adapt to that for her safety and survival.

“But then, with the separation, she can’t, and she can’t manage it because she doesn’t know what mood he’s in. She can’t monitor it, as such. So, there’s added barriers and things to do and think of with the leaving, as opposed to just cut ties and it’s over. It’s not.”

It doesn’t seem like such an easy solution anymore, does it? Where would she go? Who would she turn to? Does she have a support system in place if she does leave? And what if she doesn’t? Suddenly leaving seems like more trouble than staying put.

“A lot of the time, she doesn’t have means, because the financial abuse has been part of it, and she doesn’t have anyone to take her in,” said Tara.

“And even if she does, if you were spending, whatever, a few weeks in emergency accommodation, whether it’s in a friend’s room or in a refuge with your two or three kids in the one room, you’re going to start thinking, ‘I was better off in my house’, because there isn’t a pathway out.

“And we can give the support, and the advice, and accompany to court and all of that, but we can’t guarantee what happens after that. We’d love to be able to say, there’s housing available, or there’s such and such a thing available, but there isn’t, and that’s the problem.”

That’s why it’s so important to let her be the boss of her own situation and to ‘Follow Her Lead’. Only she knows what’s best for her right now and telling her to leave can often present more challenges than solutions.

Follow Her Lead: What can you do if someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse?

domestic abuse

Knowing a friend or family member is a victim of domestic violence, coercive control or other forms of domestic abuse can be difficult and you may find yourself wanting to take drastic measures to get her out of an abusive situation.

But it’s important to remember that the situation is hers and that she may have been forced to find her own ways to cope.

Victims of domestic abuse have a strength and resourcefulness that others might not have or understand.

That’s why Longford Women’s Link is encouraging people to use the ‘Follow Her Lead’ incentive and to accept that she knows what’s best for her at this time.

“Sometimes, I think people have a misconception of what happens in a domestic violence service – that a woman comes in and straight away there’s this gang of women going ‘leave her alone’,” said Tara Farrell of the LWL Domestic Violence Service.

“But that’s absolutely not what happens. As soon as she walks into LWL, she is in control; she makes the decisions, we just provide the advice. We provide the safety planning, and the accompaniment, and all of that.

“We’re not there telling her what to do, or telling her what she should be thinking. She’s already come from that, so we don’t just continue on that road.

“And if you think that there’s somebody, whether it’s a sister or a friend or whatever, just keep in touch. Keep sending the texts, keep making the calls. Even though you might hear him in the background saying ‘who’s that?’ and she mightn’t be able to talk, and she might have to keep hanging up, keep in touch so that she knows that she’s not on her own. That’s so important because when he has cut her off from everybody, where does she go? And he knows that.”

LWL’s Heather McKenna agreed that keeping in touch is essential to ensure victims don’t feel like they’re “a burden” to their friends and family if they reach out for help.

“One thing we find is a lot of the women say ‘I don’t want to bother them’, and they feel like a burden anyway, because he’s telling them that they’re a burden, but they don’t want to feel like a burden on the neighbour, or their sister, or whoever it might be,” she said.

“And what we’ve found is that the neighbour or the sister is actually just dying for them to ring to say, ‘I need something’. And it is always okay to ask for help.

“It’s very hard to understand this woman’s world, because for each client that we have, and for every woman, it’s different. So, whilst we can sit here and understand domestic violence, it’s going to be different for the next one walking in the door, and I’ll learn something new every week.”

‘I feel angry all the time’: Children as victims of domestic violence during Covid-19

domestic abuse of children
Silent Witnesses: ‘Children living with domestic violence are living with constant trauma and anxiety’

Children are often thought of as the silent witnesses of domestic violence, hiding under their duvet, trying not to hear their parents fighting or shouting downstairs.

But this is not always the case. In fact, Longford Women’s Link provided 395 direct, face-to-face supports for children and young people in 2020.

“These children are either victims of the violence themselves, or they’re seeing it; they’re witnessing it,” explained Tara Farrell of the Longford Women’s Link Domestic Violence Service.

On top of that, there have been 33 children in need of LWL support so far in 2021, dealing with crisis response, safety planning and breaches of domestic violence orders.

“And a lot of the Garda reports at a national level around Covid-19 were saying that, for the first time now, children were seeing things they haven’t seen before, because they would have been at school, or they would have been out with their friends. Or they were having violence inflicted on them that may not have happened before.”

While the traditional image of domestic violence is that of a husband hurting his wife, it is important to remember, children are hurting too, physically, emotionally and mentally.

Their choices are being taken away from them, their source of warmth and love is being hurt and they are being forced to watch. Often, they are actively involved in trying to stop the violence or used as tools to further violence. They are being manipulated and scared to talk.

They are being told that if they ask for help or call the gardaí that someone will go to jail and that they will be put into foster care.

“We see the impact of living with domestic violence first hand. To us it is very visible but to others, it manifests itself in different ways,” Tara explained.

“Often, people just see the bold child, the child with anger issues, the child that cannot concentrate at school, the child that is late most mornings. The teenager who uses drugs and drops out of school.

“Children living with domestic violence are living with constant trauma, constant anxiety and intense feelings that no child should have to try and process. They have to present a face to the outside world, pretend everything is ok, keep up with school work and trends but underneath it all they are tired from having to soothe the baby because Dad has locked Mum into the kitchen, they are late because he went out drinking last night and they stayed awake to listen for him coming home, in the hopes he would fall asleep quickly this time.

“They are in survival mode constantly and find it hard to sit still, any little thing can set off a survival response, even a loud door banging in the school. They too are invisible victims.”

‘I feel angry all the time’. Those are the words of a six year old child who has been receiving specialist trauma supports from Longford Women’s Link domestic violence team. Gardaí attended a family home where this child, their older sibling and their mother experienced yet another incident of domestic violence, where their dad had been shouting and threatening their mother with a kitchen knife, which is his usual form of violence.

“Our team provide specific reassurances to children telling them they are not bold and acknowledging their feelings of anger and sadness,” said Tara.

“People see a bold child; we see and hear a traumatised child who is struggling with their emotions, fears, and experiences of severe violence in a place where they are supposed to be safest. Furthermore, they are dealing with a society that doesn’t understand them or the world in which they live.”

Helping children to come to terms with domestic violence is different to helping an adult. There are different ways of talking about it and getting the child to open up.

“What we do with the kids, instead of saying what domestic violence is, we use the word hurting, and we explain that hurting can be that somebody’s hurting your body, that there’s bruises, or they’re being kicked, or hit,” explained Heather McKenna of the LWL Domestic Violence Service.

“Then, the hurting is the worry in your belly, and the confusion in your mind, and there’s pain, and headaches, and stuff like that.

“While it’s scary for the professional, naming it with kids is the most helpful thing that I have found. You’re just going straight in and talking about this thing that nobody talks about. It’s a big secret, in society, never mind in the house or the family, and they just open straight up, and it’s opening that door.”

Longford Women’s Link take the ‘Follow Her Lead’ approach when it comes to helping women to deal with their situation but, as Heather explained, this approach also works well with children and gives them a sense of control where they feel they have none.

“The approach we use with the women is the same as what we use with the kids where they’re the boss,” she said. “We can find all the information and advice and suggestions, but ultimately, they know their situation best, they know how to manage it best, and we never ever force them to do anything.

“But we follow their lead. They might say ‘well, I’m not going to do that, because daddy will do this, so I’ll do this instead’. It’s about supporting their safety, how they know how to be safe rather than pretending we have the answers, because we don’t. They have the answers.”

If you would like to access safe, confidential domestic violence support, please contact LWL DVS at 0433341511.

‘Gardaí are here to listen and to help’ victims of domestic abuse, says Garda chief

Superintendent Seamus Boyle
Superintendent of Longford and Granard Districts Seamus Boyle

Gardaí in the Longford and Granard districts have seen a marked increase in the number of domestic violence incidents since the beginning of the pandemic.

Superintendent Seamus Boyle has emphasised that gardaí “are here to listen and to help and to offer advice”.

“I would add that there’s no shame in being a victim and it’s both men and women (victims) that I’ve come across, and there are services and agencies for both,” he said.

“It’s seen with all nationalities, all social statuses, and all genders. The abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional or psychological and it’s often inflicted by a family member or a partner.”

However, despite the increase in reported incidents of domestic violence, Supt Boyle believes that “there’s probably not that many new people coming into the system, but a greater increase of the people who were already in the system”.

“So, it’s couples that would have been fighting let’s say once a month, they could be fighting twice a month now, that sort of stuff,” he said, which indicates that more people are availing of the supports of organisations like An Garda Síochána and Longford Women’s Link.

Gardaí have a pro-arrest policy when it comes to assaults and domestic violence, he added, with offenders brought to court, given strict bail conditions and a court order “and the actual fear of re-offending can certainly quell the situation”.

“We also have an in-person call back policy where we will call back within a week to the victim,” Supt Boyle explained.

“What we do here is we look at every incident the morning after it happened, or let’s say the Monday morning after the weekend, and we would send a car out.

“Or, if some people don’t want a car to call out, we will make contact by phone to the injured party. But we will make a contact.”

These are policies that have always been in place but over the past 15 months, since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the need for that garda support has increased significantly.

“Definitely, we’ve seen a big increase in domestic violence since the pandemic began,” said Supt Boyle.

“People are at home more often. They’re in the house more, and there’s very few places that victims can go. There’s people who haven’t been working and it’s very stressful, this Covid, for everyone.”

A very significant form of domestic abuse is coercive control, which can leave victims feeling isolated and unsure of where to turn.

“Coercive control is like isolation from your family and friends and being deprived of your basic needs, food, electricity, and heating, monitoring your behavior, monitoring your phones, putting a tracking device on your phone or spyware,” said Supt Boyle.

“They can take control of your everyday activities, what you wear, when you sleep, and stuff like that. Humiliation, degrading, dehumanising, threats and intimidation, damaging belongings. It’s not uncommon.”

The Garda website provides valuable information on the process of reporting domestic abuse and the support the gardaí can offer, as well as information on the different court orders that can be sought to ensure the safety of the victim and their children.

For more information, visit www.garda.ie.

STEP BY STEP: What happens when you seek help & support?

Asking for help can be difficult especially when facing into the unknown. So what exactly is the process of getting a court order against an abusive partner?

  1. Whether you’ve been referred to Longford Women’s Link by gardaí, or contacted LWL yourself, you will attend an appointment in person or on the phone with a Domestic Violence Specialist.
  2. Together, you will create a safety plan that works for you and your children, and work with gardaí for additional supports on safety.
  3. The DV Specialist will help you fill out the paperwork for a protection order or interim barring order and will go with you to the next available court sitting to help you understand the court process.
  4. The judge will read your application and may have some questions before deciding if a protection order or interim barring order can be granted.
  5. Your DV Specialist will help you speak with the Gardaí again about safety and serving the order if needed and will update your safety plan regularly.
  6. Your DV Specialist will then help you apply for legal aid and access a solicitor for the next court date, when the judge will consider a long term order called a safety order or barring order.

Important Contacts for victims of domestic abuse

LWL Domestic Violence Service provides crisis support by phone (043 3341511) Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

Outside of these hours, contact the Women’s Aid 24 hour National Helpline on 1800 341900.

If you hear or see violent behaviour, call 999 or if you’d like to speak to someone at LWL, call 043 3341511.

Domestic violence calls are considered high priority by the Gardaí. If you are in danger, call 999 or 112.

For further information, visit www.lwl.ie or www.garda.ie.

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First published in the Irish Examiner

Written by Jessica Thompson