Where domestic violence is happening there is a huge risk of irreparable damage to children, writes Fergus Finlay

"MY MUM loves him but he doesn’t love her because he makes her cry. He loves me and I love him.”

That’s the voice of an eight-year-old girl. She’s the daughter of a man who has abused his wife for years. His daughter has begun to lose respect for her mother. She knows — or she thinks she knows — that the abuse wouldn’t happen if her mother didn’t somehow cause it. If it was her dad’s fault, after all, wouldn’t her mum have left? And wouldn’t she protect them all better from the shouting and the hitting and the anger?

Cormac is a 10-year-old boy. On his last birthday, when his dad still lived at home, he had a party in a local restaurant. His mother, brother and cousins were there but his father didn’t come. Later his father came to Cormac’s house and said his mother hadn’t told him the right time. His mother said she must have made a mistake and Cormac’s father pulled her to the ground and kicked her. Cormac said he wished his mam had got the time right, but he also felt guilty because it was his party that had caused his mam to get hurt. He was very anxious about his birthday.

Domestic violence happens in secret. That’s the primary thing that enables it. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a man to abuse a woman, or a woman to abuse a man, if everyone knows it’s happening. Or at least, if we don’t choose to look the other way.

That’s the point of a new advertising campaign, run by COSC, which is a national office aimed at confronting domestic and sexual violence. When she launched the campaign, the Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald described it as a campaign that calls on us — relatives, friends, neighbours, bystanders, and witnesses — to stand together and say that domestic violence is not acceptable and must stop.

It will only stop, of course, if we speak. If we report what we see. If we get advice. There’s a very helpful website as part of the campaign (it’s not as easy to find as it should be, which is a problem) called whatwouldyoudo.ie, which offers clear and simple guidance to anyone concerned about incidents they’re aware of. And of course, there’s the best known number in Ireland — 999.

The national organisation Women’s Aid (their helpline number is 1800-341900) has worked for decades to help women in danger. Their recent publication Behind Closed Doors lists some horrifying statistics. In the last 20 years, 209 women have died violently in the Republic of Ireland — almost two out of every three of them were killed in their own home.

Where those cases have been resolved, more than half of the women were found to have been murdered by a current or former intimate male partner, and a third by a male relative or acquaintance. 16 children were killed alongside their mothers.

There have also been 22 murder-suicides in Ireland where a man has killed a woman and then taken his own life. In 21 of these cases, women were killed by a partner or ex-partner.

In the other case the perpetrator was the woman’s son. In four of the cases the man killed the woman and her children (resulting in the deaths of nine children in total) and himself.

SAFE Ireland, the national umbrella body for refugees, published a regular “one day census” to try to illustrate the scale of the problem. The most recent census showed that on just one ordinary Tuesday, November 4, 2014, 475 women and 301 children — nearly 800 people — were receiving accommodation and support from a domestic violence service in this country.

And they were the ones they were able to help. Eighteen women could not be admitted to a refuge because there was not enough space. Over the 24 hours, 137 helpline calls — or nearly six every hour — were answered by domestic violence services throughout the country. Eighteen women were pregnant. The majority of women — 290 — were aged between 26 and 45 but 23 women were over the age of 56 with eight over the age of 65.

These are shocking figures, but of course they’re statistics. They don’t tell the whole story. They don’t talk about the lives destroyed, the children damaged, the suffering, and hopelessness of victims.

But perhaps they do tell us two things. First of all, we have a problem with domestic violence. And we have a problem dealing with it and facing up to it. Those two things may mean that domestic violence, and the silence about it, is actually an intrinsic part of our culture.

We’re actually in the middle, right now, of 16 days of activism about gender-based violence. That’s 16 days that the United Nations has called for, to highlight an international issue. But there’s not much sign of national activism here, is there? It’s just one of those subjects that we’d prefer to go away, so we can continue to deny its reality.

From the perspective of the organisation I work for, Barnardos, there’s a different reality. Domestic violence destroys children’s lives too. The stories from the top of this column are two that were told at a Barnardos conference on Monday on this subject.

Barnardos works with thousands of children every year. Of course, the majority live in families where they are loved, even if the family is struggling to cope with a very imperfect world around them. But you learn nevertheless that where domestic violence is happening there is a huge risk of irreparable damage.

And we know about the consequences. For example, a boy we worked with began mirroring his father’s treatment of his mother and was shouting at her. While a girl we worked with had terrible anxiety — afraid to sleep-over in a friend’s house because she was wetting the bed at 13.

Children blame themselves for their parents’ behaviour. They can’t see any wrong in their mum or dad, and they can’t make sense of the abuse.

And it starts a cycle. Children suffering at home will always fall behind in school. They begin to resent the parent who is the victim of abuse, because that’s the only way they can absolve the perpetrator.

“It’s mammy’s fault. She makes him angry. She says so herself, ” one little girl told us.

And of course they end up feeling trapped between parents, in an endless conflict of loyalties. That can be made a lot worse when they are used as a weapon in the abuse. In the end, they come to see violence as normal, as a routine way of imposing discipline. That’s why the children of abusers all too often become abusers themselves.

In the publication we’ve produced alongside Monday’s conference, What’s the Harm?, we join with other organisations in making a lot of recommendations for policy, legislative and funding changes. But the bottom line is the same as it always has been. Domestic violence destroys lives, and domestic violence is primarily enabled by secrecy. We’ve got to get it out from behind the locked front doors of homes. And that’s a job for all of us.


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