Society's approach to domestic abuse needs to change
Published 18/04/2015 | 02:30
Just as the horrors of the Graham Dwyer trial recede, violence against women has again come calling. The agonising four-day search and tragic discovery of the body of young Irishwoman Karen Buckley in Glasgow plunged all parents of young adults into a state of dread and heartbreak. With so many of our young adult children in far-flung cities, making their way as emigrants, the plight of the Buckley family resonates with thousands of Irish families.
Our young people, in the main, cope very well with the adjustments of emigrating to new societies. They are educated, confident and sensible. They pick up jobs, make new friends, put up with inadequate accommodation and homesickness and generally make the best of the challenges of living in a new country. One thinks of thousands of Irish youngsters beavering away in jobs or studying in colleges in Canada, Australia or closer to home in Britain. They keep in touch through Skype or FaceTime and this more than anything else alleviates the sense of loss and distance between the emigrant child and parent at home. Such a state of affairs has become the norm in Ireland and is not all negative.
For most young people, a period abroad and away from Ireland is a good and exciting episode in their lives. Most intend to come back, and will as the economy picks up and their priorities change from adventure and spreading their wings to settling down with partners and having children. This is modern Irish life. But occasionally, when out of one's culture and familiar surroundings, random encounters with strangers can lurk for our young people which end in tragedy.
Out of the headlines, violence against women is like an submerged stream running through society. Sadly, the only time it breaks into public view is in the course of high-profile murder trials, such as that of Graham Dwyer. That case was unusual because of the depravity of the facts.
Many women who die violently are killed by their partners in abusive relationships which can appear more normal. In fact, women are more likely to die at the hand of their lovers than by a stranger. The sad fact is that only when the woman dies or is seriously injured, which necessitates a criminal trial of the accused, is the detail of this gender-based violence revealed to the world.
The release of Eamon Lillis this week, having served his sentence for the manslaughter of his wife Celine Cawley, generated huge media interest, more because of his financial windfall than because of the brevity of his sentence for the admitted brutal killing of his wife.
Also this week, the heartbroken father of Sarah Staunton, who was violently beaten to death by her boyfriend, spoke of his dismay at the manner of the recent criminal trial which focussed more on his daughter's alcohol issues than the track record of extreme violence by the perpetrator. Her killer, a champion boxer, received a short sentence of five years.
Violence within relationships is wrongly, in my view, called "domestic". That term tends to diminish the gravity of the violence, positioning it as an aspect of family dysfunction. On a daily basis, the family courts deal with it, in civil orders for protection and barring orders, rather than the criminal courts. Much of the policy and legislation in this area of law tends to focus on the victim in terms of support services and provision of refuge or barring orders for women fleeing violence.
These crimes are hugely under-reported, according to a 2014 Europe-wide survey. Despite a high prevalence of violence in relationships (15pc of Irish women experienced physical or sexual violence), there is a low level of disclosure. Many women feel too ashamed, diminished, broken and afraid to report this violence to the gardaí. Neighbours and family are frequently dismayed that women stay in such abusive relationships involving physical and emotional violence. People are uncomfortable about how far to intervene. Often, the unfortunate woman will claim they are to blame and plead with family for privacy, tolerance and not reporting to the authorities, as in the Sarah Staunton case.
A newly published report, 'The Lawlessness of the Home', reveals a level of stereotyping of victims and inconsistencies in dealing with perpetrators and victims in the Irish legal system. Launching the report, Sharon O'Halloran, CEO of Safe Ireland, said "existing law is often applied badly or not at all".
The author of the report suggested the authorities are guilty of a "hidden bias" when dealing with victims of domestic violence and women were unwittingly blamed for their situation by the authorities. This report follows an earlier Garda Inspectorate report which found that in 11,000 domestic calls examined, there were just 287 arrests; domestic violence incidents were often regarded as a nuisance rather than a crime.
Under new arrangements, domestic violence services provided by the gardaí have been moved into a unit dealing with human trafficking and exploitation. Cosc, the national office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based violence, remains in the Dept Of Justice as before.
The 2014 review of national strategy on domestic abuse has clearly identified problems,such as inconsistency of approach by State agencies. One is that too much focus is on victims' services and not enough on the criminal behaviour of the abuser. Such a victim-centred approach, however well-intentioned and needed by the victims, misses the point.
What is needed is a change of mindset that publicises, abhors, and identifies violent men in their dealings with partners. Society in particular needs to take a more consistent and tougher approach to this issue. There should be no ambivalence for the "domestic" nature of the violence. Violent men who batter women and children need to be called out and named for the violent criminals they are.
Providing refuge services for battered women and children is absolutely essential by voluntary organisations funded by the State and local authorities. But this is no excuse for a "normalisation" of violence within relationships. No other crime is minimised in this way by society. Women cannot consent to being abused, nor can children. Men who do these things need to be named, shamed and jailed for a period that reflects the gravity of their actions if we are to unequivocally outlaw so-called "domestic" violence.