After enduring several years trapped in an abusive relationship, Sharon* packed her bags, took her son's hand and bravely walked out on her husband. This should have been the 'happy ending' moment: the physical abuse stopped, there was no longer opportunity for her abuser to spit in her face, fling her body limply to the ground, or stub burning cigarettes out on her arms. There were no more bruises, and her son no longer had to watch in fear as his father screamed in his mother's face, pushing her physically and emotionally to the edge.
Unfortunately leaving wasn't the end of Sharon's nightmare. Instead a new chapter of torment began as she entered the courts system, a system that many feel is prolonging and exacerbating the misery for domestic abuse survivors.
"To say it was hell is an understatement," she says. "I spent six years in the courts system and ended up with a €17,000 solicitors' bill. I'm still owed €12,000 in maintenance. I lost my home and my job. I feel totally let down by a system that generally lets the abuser get away and basically puts so many obstacles in your way that you eventually give up. I fought for justice for myself and my son and all I eventually got was a tumour and debts that I can never repay."
Sadly, Sharon's experience is far from a one-off occurrence with experts saying many victims feel let down and further traumatised by a courts system that doesn't understand the complexities of abuse. The launch of the new Domestic Violence Bill last month by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald sees some welcome amendments, including provision for access to support services and evidence given by video link. But those working in the sector fear it's far from enough.
"People all along the line - doctors, solicitors, gardaí, judges - need to see that they need to treat domestic abuse differently and treat it as a crime," says a spokesperson for Adapt Domestic Abuse Service. "It's not just a disagreement between two people. It's a pattern of controlling behaviour, coercive control and sometimes Stockholm syndrome. They can't just take things at face value and assume they're dealing with 'those two fighting again' or 'stupid women'."
Sharon was doubted by professionals and family alike when she first reported her husband's abusive behaviour. But things got worse once she entered the courts system, sitting for hours within feet of her tormentor. "He was there in the open near me, that look… that sneer," recalls Sharon. "The worst part is, if you are at the end of a very long court list, you have to suffer it all day and then, more than likely, an adjournment, so you have the pleasure of the same hell the next session."
Nor is the system easy to navigate. Even with the new amendments to the bill, women need to know to apply in advance through their solicitor to bring a support worker into court, they're not guaranteed the option of utilising a video link, and sometimes justice costs.
"I know one case where a woman had to pay a couple of thousand euro for someone to speak to her child and watch them with their father and mother, before making a report to the court on what was in the best interests of the child," says the Adapt spokesperson. "Not everyone can afford that. Reports can take months, barring orders are easy to get if you've broken limbs, but if you've been suffering systematic psychological torture, that's more difficult to prove. If people aren't linked to a support service, then they really are floating around and at the mercy of the court and how familiar their solicitor is, or isn't with the dynamics of abuse."
After what he'd witnessed, Sharon's 13-year-old son told a judge he didn't want to see his father. "The judge replied 'some times we do not always get what we want and we have to do as we are told'," says Sharon. "That was not listening to the rights of the child, that was a disgrace."
All too often abusers are able to manipulate the legal system and use their children to continue the abuse of their former partners. Margaret Martin, director of Women's Aid, explains: "When women do leave the abusive relationship, they face negotiating the legal system for custody, access and maintenance which, in the context of domestic violence, leaves women vulnerable to continued abuse." In 82 contacts with women, it was disclosed that children were being abused during access arrangements. On a further 325 occasions, mothers disclosed that they themselves had been directly abused during access visits.
Mum-of-two Lucy* placed her faith in the system by making an order for a section 47, so a psychologist could talk to the parents and the two children, neither of whom wanted to see their father. "I was convinced a professional would see though my ex-husband," says Lucy, who suffered psychological and financial abuse.
"His solicitor nominated someone my legal team had never heard of but I just thought 'justice will prevail, the kids have to come first'. I told the children 'this person is going to help us, once you tell the truth everything will be fine'." The report came back saying Lucy had coached the children, that her former husband was a good father and that she was encouraging parental alienation.
"It was terrifying," she says. "I was told that if I breeched the access order again, custody should be given directly to the father. That gave him a golden ticket to abuse me further and the children, and this time, physically."
Both Lucy and Sharon's husbands hold upstanding roles in their communities, they are articulate and charming men. Both women felt they'd struck lucky when they first met their partners, both took a long time to recognise themselves as victims of abuse - is it any wonder others fall for the act?
"Abusers are the experts in the dynamics of abuse. Not judges," says counselling psychologist and psychotherapist Sally O'Reilly (sallyoreilly.com). "I've seen many professionals fall under the spell of abusers, professionals who would be quite certain that they are astute and immune to charm."
Abusers - and she stresses that these can be male or female - deal in subtleties. "Abuse is rarely obvious," she explains. "The power and intimidation that people can inflict upon each other is often unseen but keenly felt. Abusers know exactly how to use non-verbal cues to keep their victims scared."
She adds: "To have a victim of domestic abuse near their abuser in a court setting is, in my opinion, irresponsible, cruel and obstructive. At best it's unsupportive and at worst, can feel like an extension of the abuse for many victims."
For the system to change, greater understanding is imperative. "We believe it would be supportive to judges and other legal professionals to undertake training on domestic violence that covers understanding the dynamics of domestic violence, the impact on the children and recognising grooming (manipulation) by the abuser," explains Margaret Martin. "We believe that it would lead to more consistent outcomes and would better protect victims."
Lucy's daughter returned from a recent access visit with bruises on her arm, saying she'd been punched and told "if you cry for mummy, you'll never see her again". She doesn't know what's going to happen next.
"I feel helpless and completely unsupported by the courts," she says. "It's just my word against his. It doesn't matter what I say, or what the children say, he'll deny it and say I've made it all up. He's very intelligent, he's very believable and he'll do anything to win. I struggle in his presence and lose my voice but I'll keep fighting, not for me, but for my children."
If you've been affected by these issues, you can contact Women's Aid at 1800 341 900 (womensaid.ie) or Adapt Services on 1800 200 504 (adaptservices.ie) *Names have been changed