Monday 21 May 2018

'Anything could set him off, I woke up to being punched in the head and face' - a domestic abuse survivor's harrowing story

WARNING: This article contains details that some readers may find distressing

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Breda Heffernan

Breda Heffernan

Separating from a perpetrator of domestic violence does not always mean safety for the victim as almost a third of women who contacted Women's Aid last year said they were being abused by an ex.

Launching its annual report for 2017 director of Women’s Aid  Margaret Martin said 19,385 disclosures of abuse were made to it, 3,552 of which related to children.

Ms Martin said: “Separation has long been identified as a risk factor for repeated and escalated domestic violence and femicide.”

She pointed out that 28pc of contacts Women’s Aid received last year were from women who were being abused by their ex-boyfriend, ex-partner or ex-husband.

“Women’s Aid experience and research shows that separation does not always mean safety,” she added.

Two survivors of domestic abuse addressed the launch yesterday, including one woman who asked only to be identified as ‘Eve’.

She recounted the horrific abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband and called for more resources to support women to protect women when they leave abusive partners.

Eve's story is below:

Today is my third time to attend the Annual Women’s Aid victim impact report. A lot has happened in these three years. The most important of which is why I am speaking here today, I am here to give a real account of the challenges that face a victim of domestic abuse and to show that there is hope - three years ago I made the move and started the legal process of separating from my abusive husband with whom I shared a life for 17 years.

Today I am happy, the happiest I have felt in 20 years. I can finally live my daily life without fear, I no longer have to worry about whether something trivial that I say or do will upset him and send him into a tirade of verbal abuse or worse still a rage. Because anything could set him off, he once dreamt that I was having an affair with one of his friends, the fact that this was not grounded in reality and rather a symptom of his jealous and controlling mind influencing his imagination did not matter. I woke up to being punched in the head and face while he spat abuse at me.

Three years ago Women’s Aid gave me the confidence to make the decisions I knew I had to make to protect myself emotionally, psychologically and physically from a man who I had once thought I loved, a person who I tried to help to deal with his “demons” as he used to call them. However more importantly, as I recognised that things were once again on a downward spiral within our rollercoaster relationship, I no longer had just myself to consider, I had to protect my young children from witnessing any more scenes of verbal and physical abuse, because they were now of an age that they understood and would remember.

Three years ago I sat here in a professional capacity. Working in the media I was here to see the research I had conducted with an online community of young women regarding dating abuse referenced by Women’s Aid in front of government representatives in order to get funding and legislative change to protect and support victims. Many of these young women didn’t realise that what they had experienced in the form of emotional manipulation and controlling behavior was abuse and not the way a normal dating relationship should develop.

The concept of domestic abuse was for older married couples. This was an issue close to my heart as this is is how my relationship developed as a young 20-year old woman.

I stood up in this room posing questions as part of the panel discussion and appealed to the Minister to do more. I listened to the statistics that the most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship was the time that she leaves her partner, the weeks that followed would typically see him seek revenge. This resonated with me as I thought to myself but she’s free? I had naively thought that nothing could be worse than when she was trapped in the relationship. That the act of leaving was the hardest part over.

The picture of me that you see on the screen happened 3-months after I left him. I was deep in the process of legal separation but due to financial reasons and his three suicide attempts to manipulate me into going back to him meant that his mental health was fragile and I was guilted into allowing him to continue to co-habit while the house was on the market for sale at which time we would both go our separate ways. I had a protection order in place during this time. My local garda station had been notified of my vulnerability, I had visited them twice in the previous 6-months to inform them of the potential danger I was in.

During our 17 year relationship the physical abuse was so bad that I had to attend accident & emergency four times. Black eyes, fractured cheekbones, suspected fractured arm, split lips, head trauma. I never reported it to the guards, I feared of what he would do to me, to my family and to himself. The threats were real. I hid the abuse with tales of various forms of flu that required me to lay low for a week or more until the swelling had gone down and the bruising could be hidden with clothing and the clever application of make-up.

The picture you see is the last time he assaulted me, I feel very lucky to be alive. After a 12-hour drinking binge he came home upset that I had been out earlier in the evening with friends he disapproved of and the children had been looked after in our home by a trusted neighbor.

The tirade of abuse went on for two hours. He smashed furniture, plates, glasses. He threw an unopened bottle of red wine so hard at the kitchen window that the broken glass lodged in the double glazing and window frame. He woke our children from their beds and dragged me by the hair into their bedroom to tell them what a terrible mother I was. He screamed foul language at me and about me in an attempt to poison my children against me. They stood in the bedroom with their backs against the wall frozen to the spot, I’ll never forget the fear on their little faces.

He threw me on to the bed and then straddled me locking my arms under his legs. That’s when the punching started, over and over again at my face on my head. I was screaming I don’t know whether it was all inside or how much of it came out. Then he told me that he was prepared to do jail time, that I’d ruined his life and he was going to make me pay.

Then putting his knees on my chest he tried to choke me. I was struggling to breathe, I must have made some noise at this point because this is when I heard my 4-year-old daughter say “Stop daddy, mummy can’t breathe. She can’t breathe daddy. You’re hurting her neck.”

Her voice shocked him into releasing his grip and getting off me with a parting insult. He then took the children into what was our bedroom but had become his in the separation. He locked the bedroom door and warned me not to attempt to take his children from him. The locked bedroom was quiet, the children were too scared to say or do anything. I later found out that he took two sleeping tablets and got into bed with the children.

I managed to find my way downstairs, I couldn’t see out of one eye. I found my phone, my hands trembling, I got my car keys put them in the ignition of the car and then sat on the door step with the door open listening to any signs of distress coming from his bedroom. I called my local garda station with whom I had filed the protection order. I explained my emergency and then waited. It took them 55 minutes to respond from a station just over a mile away.

Two garda cars came, they broke into his bedroom, handcuffed him and took him into custody. My children lay still in the bed pretending to be asleep, too scared to move. He never returned to the house again after that.

The breach of the protection order was heard in the District Court alongside cases of shop lifting and failure to pay a parking fine. He plead guilty, but because he had run for sanctuary in a mental hospital his behavior was excused and no sentence or punishment of any description given. His lawyer even asked that he have this charge expunged from the record as he was making an effort to reform. The judge agreed, moving quickly on to his next case in his long list. I felt cheated as he winked at me leaving the courtroom. He had gotten away with it again.

I was put under pressure by his family not to prosecute him under the charge of Section 3 Assault which is what the guards had deemed appropriate given the extent of my injuries. I was guilted into the idea that it wouldn’t be good for the children, that he was going to get the help he needed.

Change the record I thought, this was his fifth admission to St John of Gods in 17-years and with every promise of change was just a marker for a cycle of best behavior that descended back over time into controlling behavior, verbal abuse then physical abuse and ended with a significant physical assault.

My separation hearing was coming up in family court three weeks later, there were promises to give me what ever I wanted if I didn’t proceed with prosecution. I was still traumatised, I couldn’t think clearly, I was unable to make a rational decision.

All I could think about was protecting my kids and starting over. Would it further damage them if their father went to jail? Did I want to relive the whole scene a year or more down the road in court and have that hanging over my head when all I wanted to do was move on? I secretly hoped he would be so scared and ashamed that he would run away, leave to start a new life in Australia. If I prosecuted he would never be able to leave.

As I said I couldn’t think clearly and the arresting policeman said I had four to six weeks to make my decision or the DPP wouldn’t take the case. Whatever happened to the statute of limitations? Was it not three years?

I am ashamed to say that I didn’t have the courage to prosecute. I wish I had felt more supported and protected by the law and the right counseling to make a better decision.

By not pressing charges I enabled the cycle of abuse to continue. But as women we are genetically programmed to care, to fix, to help, and while this is very effective in bringing new life into the world, in this extreme situation that is our downfall.

He didn’t change his ways. Despite supporting letters from psychiatrists and psychologists in the hospital, he didn’t change and I’m now convinced he can’t change.

He is a ticking time bomb that last exploded when he assaulted my 80-year old mother 4-months ago because he her phone signal was down and he had to wait 30 minutes for an access collection of the kids.

  • If you’ve been affected by this story, you can call Women’s Aid Ireland’s 24hr National Freephone Helpline 1800 341 900

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