Fighting back against violent culture

The regular disclosure of incidents of domestic and sexual violence has led to one professor describing this ongoing problem as a national crisis, writes Cormac O’Keeffe

A WOMAN literally kicked to death by her partner.

A daughter put through “hell on earth” for more than a decade by her abusive dad.

A 14-year-old boy defiled by a grown man who snared him after “grooming” him over a children’s website.

And another Catholic priest sent down for 16 years for destroying the lives of three boys.

These are a few of the court cases that have gone through the courts in recent weeks. They are a sobering reminder of the scale of the problem of sexual and domestic violence.

While these cases were going on, history professor Diarmuid Ferriter, speaking at a launch, said the problem was a “national crisis”.

COSC

Spearheading efforts to tackle this “crisis” is Éimear Fisher, the head of Cosc. Little known outside the sector, Cosc is the Government’s agency for driving a strategy to combat sexual and domestic violence. Set up just three years ago, the agency, operating within the Department of Justice, has a massive job at hand.

“Our clear role is to co-ordinate, not to do the work of the Garda or the HSE or the NGOs,” Ms Fisher said at the outset of the interview.

But, she added, “we do have to drive it. All Government departments and agencies, including the Garda and the HSE, all have their own priorities.

“In the past this was not seen as a priority. But since the Government decided to set Cosc up, it has been.”

She said outgoing] Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy was “on board from the beginning” and they have had “huge assistance” from the Garda. The HSE has given considerable assistance. Ms Fisher said she also has been surprised by the level of “buy-in” from NGOs, some of whom were initially wary of the new office.

SCALE

The Cosc executive director said one of the big problems was the lack of reliable figures on the problem and trends over the years. While there was some evidence of a decrease in sexual offences between 2004 and 2009 (with a rise between 2008 and 2009), she said she couldn’t “put hand on heart” and stand over them.

This is because of how gardaí record the data, a situation highlighted dramatically in the second half of this year, with significant jumps in sexual offences. The Central Statistics Office put this down largely to an internal Garda review of how past sexual offences were recorded.

Ms Fisher said the key figures which they can stand over are from the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report in 2002 and the National Crime Council (NCC) research on domestic violence in 2005.

The SAVI report found:

* 20% girls and 16% boys had experienced sexual abuse in childhood.

* 42% of women and 28% of men experienced some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime.

* 24% of perpetrators of sexual violence against adult women are partners or former partners.

* 1% of men and 8% of women reported the crimes to the Garda.

“SAVI is still the seminal research regarding sexual violence,” said Ms Fisher. “The trends in general rates [from Garda figures] are reasonably consistent, frighteningly stable and the rates of reporting have been low.”

A recent major piece of research, Rape & Justice in Ireland (2009), highlighted the continuing lack of faith among victims in both the Garda and the courts, with Ireland having one of the lowest conviction rates in Europe. But Ms Fisher said there are indications the reporting of sexual violence is improving, and cited the findings of the annual review of the Rape Crisis Network last month.

This found that 27% of survivors of sexual violence attending their 13 centres had reported the crime to gardaí. This was the “highest figure” in the network’s history.

“That’s a very hopeful indicator,” said Ms Fisher. “We have a long way to go, but it shows we can actually reduce this. That’s what the strategy is all about.”

The NCC report on domestic violence found:

* 15% of women and 6% of men had experienced severe forms of domestic abuse.

* Including minor forms of abuse, the figure for women rises to 29% and for men jumps to 26%.

* 29% of women severely abused reported the matter to gardaí, and just 5% of men.

“I describe this always as, in an estate of 100 houses, there are 15 houses where women are severely abused and six houses where men are severely abused. That’s huge,” said Ms Fisher.

The only figures regularly collated in relation to domestic violence are court figures on barring, safety and protection orders.

Research from the US suggest as high as 20% of attendances at emergency departments are due to domestic violence.

She said one of the key actions under the Government’s blueprint, the National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence 2010-2014, was to work with the HSE in increasing opportunities for people to disclose domestic violence. She said one study in the Rotunda Maternity Hospital found that one in eight women had been abused while pregnant. The HSE had implemented disclosure systems in up to four maternity hospitals, and one system in Cork University Maternity Hospital had been very successful.She said the HSE planned to extend this system.

RECESSION

Ms Fisher said she is often asked are sexual and domestic violence linked recessionary times. “Is there a correlation? Well, there’s no evidence, but common sense tells me, if relationships are already vulnerable to violence, if you already have heightened tension in a household, common sense would suggest it would come out in times of recession.”

Support groups are pointing to continuing high demand for services.

Safe Ireland, the representative network of domestic violence services, said more than 7,400 women received support in 2009, compared with 6,111 in 2008 and 5,195 in 2007.

It said while 1,534 women and 2,334 children had been accommodated in refuges last year, women and children had to be turned away on 2,341 occasions.

Safe Ireland director Sarah O’Halloran said women experiencing domestic violence run a high risk of being caught in the trap of recession and poverty. “We are seeing an unprecedented increase in the number of women coming to us at a time when vital funding and support provision is being cut. We are seriously gambling with women’s and children’s safety.”

Ms Fisher said the answer to the problem was not building another 1,000 refuge places. “We need to move away from refuges as the only option. I would say let’s increase awareness and prevention and make sure when victims are in a position they know how to get help, and gardaí know how to help. That reduces the need for refuges.”

She said when asked by NGOs what can they do if they have less resources, her reply is that the community needs to get involved. “More than ever there will be less money available for awareness for big campaigns. We need the community to get on board.”

Cosc itself is hit by budgetary constraints, although their funding for next year is up 18% to €2.41m. But it is significantly down on its 2008 budget of €3.45m. Cosc is supposed to have 12 staff, but only has eight and has lost its key researcher. Ms Fisher said this has a serious impact, as the whole strategy is supposed to be based on evidence, on what works: “That’s really difficult to do in a situation of decreased resources and research is considered discretionary.”

ALCOHOL

The Rape & Justice report highlighted the relationship between alcohol and sexual violence, both for the perpetrator and the victim.

It found nearly two-thirds of complainants and almost nine out of 10 defendants binge drank on the night of the attack. The author of the report, Conor Hanley of NUI Galway said tackling the drink culture was the closest thing to a magic bullet to tackling sexual violence.

Speaking at the launch, the Director of Public Prosecutions James Hamilton said an increasing number of suspected rape cases were “unprosecutable” because complainants were intoxicated.

Ms Fisher said the country was only now starting a debate of what this means for women: “If we say alcohol is involved in 45% of unwanted sexual experiences, women going out know the more alcohol they have the more vulnerable they are. At the same time, they’d say ‘I’m entitled to go out and have a few drinks with my friends and entitled not to be raped.”

She said alcohol could be addressed as part of the action on awareness and challenging behaviour, but the strategy was at the early stages of dealing with alcohol and said it would be “more developed” in the next strategy.

Ms Fisher said the issue was part of addressing society’s view to rape. She said a previous study by Women’s Aid found that 19% of young women and 34% of young men did not think being forced to have sex was rape.

MEGAN’S LAW

The issue of people’s right to know where sex offenders live constantly crops up in the media, seen dramatically with the release this year of rapist Larry Murphy.

A major consultation with groups involved in the area examined the issue of the management of sex offenders. It resulted in a discussion document, highlighted in the Irish Examiner last October. It was against any kind of Megan’s Law, referring to the US, where people can access a register detailing the locations of sex offenders.

“The strong view was it would not provide the right result and would drive perpetrators underground,” said Ms Fisher. “If they are in the community, gardaí and others can monitor them.”

However, the document did recommend that people with a legitimate interest should be informed. This would include potential future victims, such as new partners. The document said the department intended to bring in legislation on this.

On the treatment of convicted sex offenders, Ms Fisher said she was “happy” the Prison Service was taking it seriously.

As regards the argument that all offenders should undergo treatment, whether they are willing to or not, Ms Fisher said all the research suggested a person responds when it is not mandatory.

She said there was “scope for motivation”, but said there were difficulties with that in practice: “How far do you bring motivation? If you take part in a course and get temporary release, how meaningful is that, how is it measured?”

Ms Fisher said the strategy was also trying to deal with the issue of managing sex offenders who haven’t been convicted. “This is a really difficult area and one we have to grapple with over the next few years.” These offenders could come to the attention of health authorities. This is linked to tricky issue of sharing “soft information”: information about suspected offenders who haven’t been convicted. She said the Attorney General’s Office was looking at this.

“If a person is not convicted it’s very difficult to point the finger at them. At the same time if there is a reasonable case of solid evidence, one would imagine it is reasonable to erode some civil rights. I’m hopeful something will be resolved.”

MESSAGE

Ms Fisher said the key message to people was there is help out there.

“It’s crucial that victims and people surrounding them know there is help out there. We have to encourage people to access these services. They need to be told: ‘You are not alone’.”

GETTING HELP:

* Rape Crisis: 24-hour Helpline: 1800 778 888

* Women’s Aid National Helpline: 1800 341 900 (10am-10pm)

* Amen: Support group for male victims of domestic violence: 046 9023718 and (out of hours) 086 7941880

* Safe Ireland: 090 64 79078 or www.safeireland.ie

* One in Four (Support group for people who have experienced sexual abuse or sexual violence): 01-6624070 or www.oneinfour.org

* Move (Men Overcoming Violence): 065 6848689 or www.moveireland.ie

* Mend (Helping men to stop being violent to partners): www.mend.ie

* The Other Half (Men against domestic violence): www.theotherhalf.ie

* Cosc: www.cosc.ie

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