The damage caused to children by domestic violence could be “irrepairable” unless the State provided the necessary intervention services, a government-appointed expert on children's rights has said.
Dr Geoffrey Shannon, the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, said children were being treated as “onlookers” in domestic violence cases when in fact they were caught up in the midst of the “turmoil and trauma” of it.
Speaking at the launch of the Women's Aid Impact Report 2018, he described the statistics regarding children in the report as “staggering”.
The report, entitled Children Let Down By The System, said 3,728 disclosures of child abuse had been reported to Women's Aid in 2018.
Dr Shannon described domestic violence, particularly emotional abuse, as “sinister” which could have a “life-long” impact of children.
“Domestic violence scars children emotionally and without intervention the damage to children could be irrepairable”.
Margaret Martin, director of Women’s Aid, said that in the disclosures they received “children were being hit, slapped, shouted at and called names, and in some cases, sexually abused”.
She said: “Children have been told they will be killed alongside their mothers. At times, the perpetrator of the abuse has deliberately targeted the children as a way to hurt them and their mother.”
Ms Martin added: “It was reported that children were bearing witness to the most appalling abuse and violence against their mothers.
She said when they haven’t witnessed the abuse, they have seen the aftermath, in bruises, broken bones, damaged furniture and belongings.
She said women and their children were often put at risk by the decision of the court to allow perpetrators of domestic violence to have access to the children.
She said that in the granting of barring orders to the woman, no assessment is made of the safety and wellbeing of the children – and that this needed to be changed as a “matter or urgency”.
In addition, she said experts should be made available in court to professionally assess any threat the perpetrator poses to children, that funding should be made available for child contact centres across the country to facilitate safe supervised access visits and that training be made available to relevant staff.
Dr Shannon said that while important legislation had been brought in by Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone (who was present to launch the report) and former justice minister Frances Fitzgerald (also present) that legislation of itself was not enough – and that the services had to be put in place.
He said current services were tailored to adults rather than children and that if the authorities didn’t act to change this that “consequences will be lifelong”. He called for a “complete review” of the system.
In addition to having experts in court to give voice to children, he said the setting up of contact centres was “imperative”.