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'There's no respite': the devastating impact of abuse during lockdown

Charities and services helping victims of domestic violence are witnessing how Covid-19 restrictions are causing a pressure cooker environment of increased stress, anxiety and fear, write John Meagher and Ellen Coyne


Concerns: Emma Murphy. Photo by Gerry Mooney

Concerns: Emma Murphy. Photo by Gerry Mooney

Concerns for children: Joanna Fortune

Concerns for children: Joanna Fortune


Concerns: Emma Murphy. Photo by Gerry Mooney

Time and time again, Emma Murphy has seen the devastating impact of domestic abuse. She talks of women arriving at Saoirse - the refuge shelter at Tallaght that she works with - and they are broken.

"They are shells of themselves," she says. "There's such fear there. Even if they haven't been physically or sexually abused, the scars of coercive control take a long time to heal. They have been constantly told that they're worthless - and they have come to believe it."

Sometimes they arrive at the shelter with young children. They have come as a last resort. "You want to help them get their lives back," Murphy says. "Because, for too long, their lives were taken away from them."

Saoirse is well named: it is the Irish word for freedom. But, right now - in an unprecedented time of restrictions to contain Covid-19 - refuge shelters face all sorts of challenges, not least the safe admission of victims, and the rehousing of others at a time when there are justified fears about the transmission of the virus.

"I dread to think about the number of women living this hellish existence right now," Murphy says. "There's no respite for them. They're living with an abusive partner and they're being told to stay at home, as we all are. They're both in the house together for very long periods of time.

"It can," she adds, "feel overwhelming for them and I think this lockdown has made an already tough situation even more unbearable. It's devastating to see."

For one former domestic violence victim - who volunteers at a Dublin refuge shelter but wishes to speak anonymously - the impact of abuse can be life-changing. "I was beaten several times by my ex-husband and while that was horrible and humiliating, at least I had the physical scars to show for it," she says.

"There were no marks for all the times he called me a 'bitch' and a 'c**t' and when he said I was a useless mother. He put me down so much that I started to believe that I wasn't a worthwhile person at all. But at least I had my part-time job to go to - and at least I could see my friends whenever I wanted to. Those women stuck at home with their abuser during this period of lockdown can't do that and I can't even begin to imagine how depressed and frightened they must be."

Sarah Benson, chief executive of Women's Aid, says there has been a surge in calls to the charity's helpline since lockdown restrictions were introduced in March.

Benson says she worries for people living in abusive situations, especially as the slow easing of the restrictions in effect ensures that people will still be in the same home together for abnormally long periods of time. "There just isn't that space for them to be apart, to travel, to move," she says. "We've seen a very significant increase in garda call-outs related to domestic violence and abuse.

"And while the courts remain open for interim barring orders, we have seen a marked drop in applications. We and the courts and the Legal Aid Board don't extrapolate from that that there's a drop in demand, but we realise that there's a logistical issue in terms of opportunities and capacity to get to a court. We're more worried than ever."

Benson says the message she is getting back from people working directly with abuse victims is a sobering one at a time when the country's focus is on beating the coronavirus. "Living with domestic violence and abuse at any time causes extraordinary levels of stress, anxiety, fear," she says, "and that is really being compounded by what's happening [with lockdown] right now.

"The levels of anxiety are through the roof. We're hearing from women who are articulating suicidal ideation. The levels of isolation feel unbearable. Those little opportunities where people could get respite - whether it's at work or being able to pop down to their mums or their brothers... all of those things are gone, which is creating an absolute pressure cooker of an environment."

Many feel they have nowhere to go. In a letter to Sinn Féin's housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin this week, Tusla, the child and family agency, expressed its concerns that abuse victims trapped in lockdown with their attackers may not be able to get to refuges.

"We have been monitoring use of refuge services over the duration of the Covid-19 emergency," the letter noted, "and are aware that demand for spaces overall is lower than typical and this may reflect difficulties for women in accessing services, given that experience elsewhere indicates a rise in levels of domestic violence during the period of Covid-19 restrictions on movement."

"The letter from Tusla is doubly worrying because it means that even when some accommodation is available, people aren't accessing it," Ó Broin says, "despite the fact that we know there has been an increase in calls as reported by the various support organisations and the guards."

Ireland already has a shortage of refuge spaces and each year thousands of women and children are turned away. There are 21 domestic abuse refuges in Ireland, but 10 counties have no shelters. There are a total of 141 refuge spaces in Ireland, according to the most recent figures available. The Istanbul Convention, a European directive for the prevention of violence against women, recommends that a country with Ireland's population should have 472 spaces.

When Covid-19 hit, the number of refuge spaces in Ireland fell and several centres around the country have been unable to accept new admissions according to Safe Ireland, the umbrella group for domestic abuse services.

Last month Aoibhneas, a refuge in Dublin, told the Irish Independent that so far this year it has already experienced a 53pc increase in the number of abuse survivors it cannot accommodate compared with 2019.

Joanna Fortune, a child and family psychotherapist, used to manage a refuge centre and saw first-hand the horrendous impact of domestic abuse on both adult victims and children.

Even in those instances where there is no sexual or physical abuse, the emotional bullying can be highly destructive. "It may not even be directed at the children but they are absorbing all of this and it is very traumatic for them," she says. "They can live with a heightened sense of anxiety and even when the parents think they are being discreet when arguing, it can affect the children."

She says this lockdown period has been especially difficult for children caught up in abusive situations. "There isn't even the respite of school for them," she says, "or being able to spend time with their friends."

With take-home alcohol sales up 40pc on this time last year, there are concerns that excess drinking is worsening abusive behaviour. Dr Brendan Kelly, a professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, says it can be a "disinhibitor" where abuse - or the likelihood of abuse - already exists.

"The pubs are closed, but most problem-drinking has never occurred in pubs," he says. "Most problem-drinking has occurred at home and this increase in home alcohol consumption will definitely drive up those figures for contacting helplines and increase the instance of abuse in the home and coercive control."

Kelly, author of the e-book Coping with Coronavirus, advises anyone who is experiencing abuse to talk to a friend. "One of the best things you can do to protect against depression is to talk to a close friend or confidante who is not a family member. What I would advise people to do - even if they're stuck in a very bad situation and they have examined all the possibilities to ameliorate it - is to not give up that hope and to stay in contact with somebody by whatever means necessary. Talking through your situation with the same person again and again - even if it feels as though you are repeating yourself - is very nourishing and protective and sustaining.

"The other thing to emphasise is that alcohol makes all problems much, much worse, for the victim as well as the aggressor."

He says it is important there is a clear message that restrictions on movement do not prohibit abuse victims from travelling to get help. "We need to be clearer about giving people permission to reach a place of greater safety," he says. "The risk of Covid-19 is very real, but it is not the only risk."

It is a sentiment shared by Benson. "At Women's Aid, we're very clear about telling people that the limits on travel - what was 2km and is now 5km - do not apply to abuse victims.

"I would say to people, if at all possible, 'Don't suffer in silence. Reach out to someone you trust'. If the situation escalates, I would echo what the gardaí have been saying and that's to ring 999. If it's your only call, make it that. And our helpline [1800 341 900] is open 24/7 and we've an online chat service as well. Look at our website, there's a lot of information there - while the majority [of victims] are women, there's a helpline for men to call, too.

"You are not responsible for the abuse you are suffering. A lot of the time people are blamed, but it's not your fault."

Fortune believes the 'alone, but together' message of social distancing should be applied to looking out for one another. "If you feel that someone is a victim of domestic abuse, phone the gardaí and say, 'Look, I heard shouting in my neighbour's house. I don't know what's been happening, but I just wanted to let you know.' I think that sort of action is important when people are feeling so isolated."

Safety plan

For parents who have the wherewithal to recognise that one or both have behaved in an abusive manner within view or earshot of their children, open dialogue is crucial. "Don't just assume the children don't understand what's happening," Fortune says. "Talk to them. Say to them, 'I know you heard that and I'm sorry that you were exposed to it'." She says it is important to show contrition for such behaviour and to ensure that children don't feel they are ever to blame.

Murphy says an abuse victim is never alone, no matter how desperate their situation. "I'd say to them: phone women's refuge directly or call Women's Aid," she says. "There's so much support out there. Sometimes the helpline call that we initially get could mean the woman coming into refuge or we could support her in another way through outreach service. If her partner is extremely dangerous, we can get a safety plan together and support her by going to court and getting a protection order.

"And even if the woman doesn't want to leave her home but wants to get rid of the perpetrator, we can advise her on what to do and how to go about it the right way, with all the legalities in place. I've met so many people over the past five years who say the same thing: they felt they were alone and there was nothing they could do. But there is always light at the end of the tunnel."

Although Murphy has witnessed a great deal of pain, she has seen the other side, too. "The best thing is to see the change in people who were at their wits, anxiety levels through the roof. It's like seeing two different people. The inner strength that the woman can get from even making that first phone call is so powerful. And it can be the first step to a new, and much better life."

To donate €4 to Safe Ireland, text SAFE to 50300.

The Women's Aid phone line [1800 341 900] is open 24/7

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