I welcome its introduction and I especially welcome the new protections for applicants for domestic violence orders, such as the ability to give evidence by video link for those aged under 18 and for others in certain circumstances, the right to court accompaniment, the extension of safety orders to applicants in dating relationships, and the introduction of emergency barring orders. In my work with the RISE Foundation I sometimes deal with people who are prepared to stay in a violent relationship because they feel there is no alternative. They are not financially independent and fear they will become homeless with their children if they try to escape the violence experienced in the home. The lack of support for these people needs to be addressed and their housing and financial needs have to be met.
The introduction of this legislation is to be welcomed as the provisions in the Bill will allow Ireland to ratify the Istanbul Convention or the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. We all know the statistics. A recent European Union survey on violence against women has found that 14% of women in Ireland have experienced physical violence by a current or ex-partner and 6% of women have experienced sexual violence by a current or ex-partner. The survey found that 31% of women have experienced psychological violence by a current or ex-partner. In Europe, 73% of women who have experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or a previous partner indicate that their children have become aware of the violence. The scale of the problem in Ireland can be seen when we consider the fact that in 2015, there were 12,041 contacts with Women’s Aid, in which 16,375 disclosures of domestic violence against women were made, including emotional, physical, financial and sexual abuse. The extent of the problem can be seen when one considers the recent solved murders of Irish women, of which more than half were murdered by their husband, partner or ex-partner. Domestic violence is a crime and domestic violence is everyone’s business. Domestic violence kills our women and children. Women deserve to be protected in their own homes. I appreciate, however, that men are also suffering from domestic violence, as my colleague Senator Conway-Walsh has said.
All too often there is outrage and condemnation when a woman is assaulted in a public place, but most violence suffered by women is in their own homes. A strong zero tolerance message should be sent out to anyone who commits, or intends to commit, violence in the home. It should also be considered that a second or subsequent conviction of an offence of domestic violence would be punished by a doubling of the maximum sentence. This legislation will reinforce the message that domestic violence is a crime, that perpetrators will be punished and victims protected. These policies must focus on the protection of children and address the impact on children of violence in the home. Criminalising domestic violence sends a clear message that violence is not a private matter and that it is unacceptable. It is essential that protective laws are enforced and offenders held accountable. Violence against women recognises no racial, cultural, economic or religious borders.
The human and economic cost of violence against women is enormous. The personal cost of violence against women can manifest itself in health problems such as depression, poor overall health, eating disorders, gynaecological problems, substance and alcohol abuse and attempted suicide. The particular impact of domestic violence on children must be taken into account by all Government agencies responding to violence in the home. Resources must be specifically allocated to support children who are exposed to violence in the home, within the overall context of prevention and support for adult victims of domestic violence. Interventions that support children who are exposed to domestic violence are crucial in minimising the long-term harm. Staff who work with children need to be trained to detect early warning signs and to provide appropriate responses and support. Early detection programmes that train health care workers to ask women about domestic violence can also help to break the silence and encourage women to seek help. Providing services and support to adult victims of domestic violence can benefit children, especially when the specific needs of children are considered. Support for locating safe housing, income assistance, access to health care and referrals for psycho-social support services should be considered as means to assist all victims of domestic violence.
The link between child abuse and domestic violence has been clearly established, with domestic violence being a very common context in which child abuse takes place. It has also been found that the more severe the domestic violence, the more severe the abuse of children in the same context. International research documents the co-occurrence of child abuse with domestic violence and the impact of domestic violence on the developmental needs and safety of children. Exposure to domestic violence is recognised in itself as a form of emotional abuse with detrimental effects to children’s well-being. I welcome the emergency barring order in this Bill because it puts safety ahead of property rights. When barring orders are granted to protect a woman from her abusive partner, there is often no assessment process looking at the safety and well-being of children of the relationship. For example, in many cases the perpetrator may be barred from the house but still have unsupervised access to the children and use that access to continue abusing the children. It is imperative that the risk posed by a perpetrator of domestic violence to the children of the family, and the impact of such abuse on them, is assessed and that immediate interim measures are taken to protect the children. When granting a barring order, the safety and well-being of any children should always be considered and appropriate interim measures should be put in place to protect them from further abuse.
When examining the issue of domestic violence, it is essential that we not only deal with acts of physical and sexual violence but also acts of psychological and economic abuse, including stalking and other forms of harassment, and acts which are undertaken to exercise coercive control.Indirect forms of harassment, including posting online of harmful private and intimate material in breach of a victim’s privacy or impersonating them online are also forms of abuse.
At present there is a lack of measures to provide for immediate protection in an emergency when the courts are not sitting. For example, if a domestic violence incident occurs on a Friday evening, there is no recourse to the courts until at least the following Monday. This may be longer outside Dublin where courts may not sit every day. It may be unsafe for a woman and her children to remain in the home with the perpetrator and with no protection for this length of time. While in certain cases gardaí may make an arrest, the perpetrator is usually granted station bail within a few hours.
In the absence of immediate protection, the woman, often with children, may have no option but to leave the family home and seek protection with family, friends or refuges. However, family and friends may be unable or unwilling to shelter her and refuges are often full. The current crisis in emergency refuges and homelessness more generally can mean that women and children who are forced to leave their home may take a long time to secure new accommodation and may be forced into emergency transient accommodation for a long period. In extreme cases, women and children may find themselves homeless and living on the streets. In other cases, they may return to the abuser, not having any other realistic alternatives. Immediate protection and prioritising the victim's safety does not sit well with having to wait, possibly for a few days, for the courts to open. There remains a clear and unmet need for orders to be available outside of traditional court hours in order that victims of domestic violence do not find themselves in an emergency without protection for extended periods.
The commitment included in the Minister's press release to table amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage to extend access to safety and protection orders to those in intimate and committed relationships who are not cohabiting is very welcome. I thank the Minister for bringing this legislation forward. It is badly needed.