IT WAS a few days before Christmas, a busy time of the year at Rape Crisis Midwest, when a knock came at the front door.
Miriam Duffy stole a quick glance at the office diary and then out of the window. The centre runs around a strict appointment service and nobody was expected.
On the doorstep stood a woman, a gift-wrapped Ponsietta plant cupped in her hands.
She had a serious expression on her face as Miriam opened the door.
“I’m a sister of X [a former client] and I’ve been meaning to drop something in for ages,” she said.
“We had a big party at the weekend for her birthday. It was great,” she smiled.
“But only for coming here, she wouldn’t have been around to celebrate it. I just want to say thanks. It’s thanks to this place that I still have my sister.”
Many people know where their local rape crisis service is situated and might walk or drive past it every day unaware of what these buildings mean to tens of thousands of people. Having access to a counsellor in one of the cosy, living room-like counselling rooms really can be the difference between sanity and insanity, life and suicide for many men and women.
Despite the national wake-up call of the past 10 years, Irish people still don’t understand how abuse survivors are tormented with shame, self-blame and flashbacks; finding it impossible to trust, yet often struggling with such low self-esteem that they subconsciously believe all they deserve is an abusive relationship.
“We are a highly traumatised population“, says counsellor, Fiona Quinn. “One in four Irish adults have suffered sexual abuse in their lives”.
Look around you: that is your family, your friends, your neighbours, your work colleagues, the girl working in the local shop, the guys on your local football or hurling team.
“Our clients would display a loss of trust in the world, are often hyper vigilant, question themselves hugely, and their ability to make good decisions. There is also often a huge belief that they are responsible, abuse survivors all try to find ways to blame themselves, a kind of internalised shame. Rape can also manifest a lot of secrecy and silence as people worry will I be judged? What if the guards don’t believe me? Will people look at me differently if they find out about this? I don’t want to be judged as a victim.”
RAPE Crisis Midwest (RCM) is situated at Punches Cross, Limerick City, in a beautifully maintained former family home surrounded by mature trees. There’s an overwhelming sense of calm both inside and outside the building, and you can understand why this quiet, residential location was chosen, just minutes away from the hurly-burly of the city centre.
When a client arrives and rings the doorbell, their counsellor always answers the door to them, walking them into to one of the five counselling rooms. The rooms are dominated by generous sofas, festooned with scatter cushions and woollen blankets. Many of the candles on mantlepieces are presents from clients “who often have a favourite room and develop quite a sense of ownership of the space”.
“When somebody comes here, we wrap ourselves around them,” says Miriam. “Yes, we need to have quality standards as a tool but we need to be human above all”.
“All we need to know from somebody is that there is a history of sexual violence. That’s all. During counselling, they will often tell you the easiest thing in the early days and the most traumatic of all last”.
Rape Crisis Midwest is open six days and two evenings a week and sees clients up to the age of 70. It also runs satellite centres in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, and in Ennis, Co Clare, which also see up to 10 clients a week apiece.
The service has 3.2 full-time counsellors or six people working at the three centres looking after about 80 weekly clients, while Miriam, the executive director, “does a bit of everything” organising fundraising, volunteer recruitment and training, staff support, working on the helpline and acting as the staff representative at Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI). The centre couldn’t function without a panel of volunteer counsellors who have all completed two years of training with RCM.
According to Miriam, the service needs more counsellors as they have a 6-8 month waiting list which rose to a year at one point. But that isn’t going to happen as in spite of fundraising up to €40,000 each year, RCM has a funding shortfall of €120,000.
Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, say it can’t plug the gap as they aren’t getting sufficient funds from Government, therefore counselling services at Nenagh and Ennis will close for four weeks between August and September.
Staff will be sent on unpaid leave. Women and men will just have to suffer on.
Ingrid Wallace began working at RCM in the 1980s. Between her and Fiona, they have 45 years experience of counselling sexual violence victims.
“When I started in the 1980s, on an Anco scheme, we were in just one small room. There were plenty of times when we weren’t sure if we could pay wages or if we could pay rent, but bit by bit, we battled for support and things grew and developed, and eventually we moved here [to this building]. But now to feel that it’s all being eroded, that awareness and education programmes have been cut, that counselling hours are being cut. It is so disheartening. Are we actually going backwards?”
MIRIAM, Ingrid and Fiona believe successive governments have failed to take rape and violence against women seriously. “And yet we save so much in terms of mental health budgets, social service budgets, our out of hours work with clients, and accompanying clients to court,” says Ingrid.
Limerick junior minister, Jan O’Sullivan “once sat on their board” and Finance Minister Michael Noonan “has always been supportive”, says Miriam.
“Services in this country need more than that though. They need a real willingness to embrace the problem. Without funding, they are just paying lip service to the notion”.
Cliona Saidlear, Policy Director of RCNI fears the closures in Nenagh and Clare may be the first of many services forced to shut their doors, unless the Government puts a well-funded strategy in place.
“Sexual violence can be addressed and can be ended. The devastating impact can be greatly mitigated through expert, victim-sensitive responses, and prevention programmes can reduce incidents. A government which does not set out to achieve this, through dedicated and adequate funding, is a government which fails children, women and men in Ireland,” she said when the closure was announced in May.
One of the most astonishing things about RCM is the reliance on volunteers. The bottom line is that there wouldn’t be an emergency service in place for rape victims, or the opportunity for them to heal psychologically, if dozens of passionate volunteers weren’t prepared to train and give up their free time to help out. The dependence on volunteers vividly illustrates the gap between public need and funding.
Up to 23 volunteers have trained for two years with RCM to work on their Sexual Assault Treatment Unit (SATU) team. The volunteers are available to clinics after the gardaí notify them of a reported rape. The volunteers will attend the Mid Western Hospital with the client where forensic tests are carried out, providing emotional support and information.
“With SATU, it’s a more directive approach as it’s a crisis moment. People think the person will be arrested the following day but it can take two years before they are even questioned. We try to give them an understanding around the process, to tell them a survivor is just a witness and while the perpetrator will have a barrister, they will have none,” said Deirdre Curtin.
Due to a 10% drop in funding each year since 2008, RCM has had to cut back enormously on its education programme. “There is an enormous need for more training in the community if only we had the resources. Ordinary people make up juries and so should be informed on how sexual assault affects people. We need far more education than just one hour with a secondary school,” says Ingrid.
Fiona says many people and juries expect rape and abuse survivors to act in a particular way, and when they don’t it can create doubt in their minds.
“Some clients can seem perfectly coherent and perfectly together as they have cut themselves off from their true feelings. That is self-preservation. Very often though, there is a real conflict between how we present and how we are. Judges and juries don’t know this. Survival is our strongest instinct and it is often much easier to put these strong feelings away. Part of therapy can be opening those boxes one at a time and putting the jigsaw together. Therapy is looking at each piece and how they fit together psychologically. There are so many myths around rape, the general public don’t understand that it’s not spontaneous. It may be opportunistic, but it is planned. There isn’t a guy who rapes who hasn’t planned and fantasised,” says Deirdre.
“We will try and gently explain that to women at SATU: you are likely not the first, this is planned and if he gets away with this, he will likely go for it again, and will continue to do so. That’s a huge part of counselling: putting the responsibility back to the offender.”
Sex abuse is pervasive in this country with most of it taking place in the family home. It’s not spoken about though, and neither are the counselling services that can help a highly traumatised individual want to live again.
“If you are out socially, nobody admits that they have a problem with rape. They’ll talk about a wonderful service from the hospice, a children’s hospital. You never hear somebody say my son, daughter has been raped and we’ve been going to Rape Crisis for a year now and they’re wonderful. That stigma certainly impacts on our fundraising.”
Rape Crisis Midwest has been working for nearly 30 years to dislodge that stigma, to start conversations about sex, control and healthy relationships, and to dispel the myths that pervade. However, more sexual abuse is taking place, more abuse is being reported and it’s becoming increasingly violent. The consequences of sexual abuse can also continue for generations.
Miriam and the staff at Rape Crisis Midwest talk about putting “the responsibility back to the offender”. What about the Government? With our heavy history of ignoring the rights of vulnerable women and children, isn’t it about time that we ensured frontline services for these survivors so they can be kept out of mental health, drug and alcohol services, and out of our ballooning suicide statistics? Offering a second chance to abuse survivors should not be left to volunteers.