‘I can’t live with the thought of being locked down with him’
Nearly 3,500 women contacted a domestic violence service for the first time during the initial lockdown; is this lockdown any better?
Service managers are seeing an increase in severity of violence, reporting that women coming forward are increasingly the victims of vicious and violent physical attacks. Photograph: iStock
Calls to family support helplines surged after news broke on a Sunday night in October that an escalation to Level 5 of Living with Covid-19 was being recommended.
As it transpired, it was to be another 2½ weeks before a new version of lockdown was imposed, but the prospect filled those in acrimoniously broken, or continuing but violent, relationships with anxiety and dread. They knew what to expect from the last time and feared a recurrence of issues ranging from breakdown in access and stoppage of maintenance payments to increased physical and emotional abuse.
“I just can’t live with the thought of being locked down with him for another six weeks,” one woman told a service manager with Safe Ireland, the national agency working with 39 frontline domestic violence services across the country. Nearly 3,500 women contacted a domestic violence service for the first time during the initial lockdown.
“Services have to work to keep women safe in their own homes, as well as working to find new safe accommodation if required,” says a spokeswoman. And they are reporting that locating accommodation for women and children to move on from emergency refuges is a big difficulty this time around.
Its recently published report, Tracking the Shadow Pandemic, showed that, over the first six months of the pandemic, more than 1,300 requests for refuge could not be met due to lack of space, which is an average of 225 a month or eight requests a day.
Managers are seeing an increase in severity of violence, reporting that women coming forward are increasingly the victims of vicious and violent physical attacks. Financial abuse is also a big concern. “People who behave badly have used the pandemic as an opportunity to continue to behave badly but in a new way,” says Karen Kiernan, chief executive of One Family, a national organisation for one-parent families.
Parenting plans between separated couples were collapsing in households around the country as the pandemic upended family circumstances almost overnight
The “wall of anxiety out there” is reflected in calls to its helpline in recent weeks as people find it difficult to cope with the thought and then reality of another lockdown. So, what has been the same and what has been different this time round for fractured families and for some of the agencies that support them?
One lesson learned from the first lockdown was when the State’s free Family Mediation Service was classed as “non-essential” and forced to close its doors in March, the phones didn’t stop ringing – “and the staff kept answering”, says its director, Fiona McAuslan.
Parenting plans between separated couples were collapsing in households around the country as the pandemic upended family circumstances almost overnight. There was genuine confusion over how access to children could be managed safely and whether coronavirus restrictions over-rode court orders, while others more cynically thought they had the perfect excuse to alter agreed arrangements to suit themselves.
At a time of such disruption, McAuslan felt the service was letting down clients by shutting its centres around the country. It was “like we were taking the ladder away”.
Suffering from Covid-19 herself at the outset of the closure, she continued to work from home as the service, which operates under the auspices of the Legal Aid Board, recalibrated quickly to try to meet the need out there.
Initially, staff did this through phone and online channels from their homes, although by May they were able to offer mediation through video conferencing.
The big difference now is that they are regarded as an essential service, McAuslan says, and this means they can continue with a “blended” service, of both face-to-face and online mediation through Level 5.
Crime and family law were immediate priorities in keeping a skeleton justice system going back in March when otherwise “the societal impact of courts closing was dangerous, to put it frankly”, says the chief executive of the Courts Service, Angela Denning. “We knew from international evidence, in China and Italy, that the numbers of applications in relation to domestic violence would increase.”
Domestic violence and child protection cases were classed as “urgent” and while, in general, issues of access and maintenance weren’t regarded as such, people could make applications for emergency hearings, she says.
Statements from Judge Daly helped hugely in offering practical advice and clarifying that travel restrictions do not apply to child access arrangements
In those early days, the president of the District Court, Judge Colin Daly, met various support groups in the general family law area to understand “how we needed to adapt our services”, Denning says.
There were concerns that people would use the pandemic as an excuse not to provide access to children. But she believes statements from Judge Daly back in March, and again during these Level 5 restrictions, have “helped hugely” in offering practical advice and clarifying that travel restrictions do not apply to child access arrangements.
Essentially, he urged parents to put the child first and use their common sense in negotiating health concerns around access. He made clear that co-parents could agree to vary arrangements that had been made by court order in relation to access and/or maintenance, and indicated that the reasonableness of both parties in trying to devise alternative arrangements would be taken into consideration if unresolved matters subsequently ended up in court.
In comparing what One Family is hearing this time around with the earlier lockdown, the big positives, Kiernan says, are the schools and early years services staying open, along with the permission for a lone-parent household to form a “bubble” with another household. Initially, some parents were concerned that they would have to form that bubble with the separated co-parent, but that was not the case.
We have heard from a lot of dads, in particular, worried that they won’t be able to have access as they don’t have the practical supports and means to do it
“One of the things that is definitely continuing to be difficult is around access and contact visits,” says Kiernan. Sometimes it is down to practicalities.
Bad weather makes it much more difficult for a parent to have access if they are not allowed visits in their home or their accommodation is not suitable.
“In normal times they might have somewhere inside to go but a lot of those options are closed now, so it is more difficult. We have heard from a lot of dads, in particular, worried that they won’t be able to have access as they don’t have the practical supports and means to do it.”
On the other hand, “some people are trying to use the lockdown as an excuse to not permit access or not take up access”.
One Family is also hearing of more online abuse. Where abusive former partners have more access now through phone or online in place of in-person visits, they may use that to try to control the other parent.
Helpline and counselling staff try to help anxious people make good decisions, she says. Calls are taking longer and are more complex. “You can’t decide unilaterally to break a court order, so is there a good basis for making that decision and can you stand over it in the future if you’re taken to court?”
Treoir, the national federation of services for unmarried parents and their children, is also getting a high volume of calls with issues over access under Level 5. But both organisations say that problems with child maintenance do not seem to be as prevalent this time round.
“We are hearing from parents who are having difficulties in agreeing on new arrangements,” says Treoir, “especially where there are no court-ordered access/custody arrangements. Similarly, parents are still struggling to rearrange access where there is a perceived risk to another member of the household.”
Where an informal arrangement has broken down, parents are finding it difficult to get a court date for an access order, as the previous lockdown placed huge pressure on the family court system. “We are seeing some parents getting court dates, but they are still far from being at the lead times we saw before Covid-19,” adds Treoir.
Denning agrees that “waiting times have increased somewhat” because the courts haven’t been able to deal with as many cases during the day due to Covid-19 protocols for safety, sanitising and social distancing. She also acknowledges that a delay of six months is a very long time in the life of a child.
“The physical environment has very much dictated the throughput of cases on a county-by-county basis, but we have been very conscious of the social aspect of family law and it has been prioritised as much as it could.” Technology has been used to great effect, she says.
“We have allowed for agreements to be ruled by email so if the parties do settle a case or come to a resolution, both parties will email in the terms and the judge will rule it and the order will issue – rather than bringing people in.”
In July, Chief Justice Frank Clarke remarked that in response to the pandemic, the thinking, planning and actions of the Courts Service had developed five years over five months.
One welcome reform that was forced on them was the introduction of an appointment system at court offices and fixed time slots in courtrooms, instead of having people queuing at a service counter or hanging around all day waiting for their case to be called.
“That has worked very well and I think that’s something we will try to maintain, particularly for family law users,” who, she points out, may have to arrange childcare. “I keep a very open mind – if things work, we’ll keep them and if they don’t, we’ll get rid of them and change.”
The keeping open of court mediation services has really helped, she adds, in supporting people to stay out of the courtroom. “You don’t need to come to court because you can’t decide on access over a bank holiday weekend, but you may still need to come to court to sort out your divorce,” she adds.
However, the Family Mediation Service is also grappling with longer waiting lists. Initially, telephone based-services were dealing with Covid-related issues, says McAuslan. They were not able to attend to waiting lists and the pandemic has added about three months to pre-existing wait times of about three to four months. “Our problem right now is that we’re dealing with effective constipation for three months,” she says. Mediations tend to take longer online as, for instance, it’s harder to exchange documents.
They also have to ensure that video conferencing is effective enough to allow couples to make “resilient” decisions that will last. That may not be possible, she explains, if things are left unsaid or lingering resentments unexplored.
Meanwhile, One Family is hearing from many newly separated people who are trying to figure out how to proceed with dismantling a relationship in a pandemic. The first lockdown may have stalled separation plans – or, perhaps initiated them – but there is only so long that couples in broken relationships can hold off.
“It is a lot more challenging to separate well during a pandemic,” Kiernan adds. “It is much harder to get all those arrangements in place, get the support you need and get a place to live. It’s just really difficult and messy.”
The Courts Service: there is “absolutely” some way to go to make the system more user friendly
The pandemic has exacerbated problems people have with the family law system in trying to secure timely resolutions in highly emotional disputes.
The chief executive of the Courts Service, Angela Denning, agrees there is “absolutely” some way to go to make the system more user friendly. “We have adopted a new 10-year modernisation programme and a key cornerstone of that is to have more user-centred services and family law is one area that is very, very complex.
“We would always say that the courts aren’t the only way to resolve your family law cases and people are sometimes very quick to say ‘I’m going to court’,” she says. Increasing the availability of the Family Mediation Service on site in courts is one way they are trying to steer people towards other expert help first.
“But when people do come to court, it can be complex and difficult,” she says. If the process is challenging, “that raises the temperature somewhat and we need to keep the temperature low in family law cases”.
Early next year they will be researching how court users prefer to engage with services, to help inform improvements, she says.
Meanwhile, the general scheme of the new Family Courts Bill was published in September and Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has also announced funding for work to start on a new family courts complex in Hammond Lane, Dublin. “Family law facilities in Dublin are not suitable for the volume of people who are using our facilities and don’t provide the right type of an environment,” says Denning. “Over in Dolphin House, two people who hate each other’s guts are sitting within a few feet of each other.”
However, reforms on the horizon are little comfort to those struggling within the system right now.
As Denning herself acknowledges, the impact of how the fallout of broken relationships is handled is lifelong. A child at the centre of these cases is a child for life – “even if they’re 40 and getting married and both parents are to be at the wedding”.
Christmas during Covid: a hot topic during this lockdown
Nobody was worrying about Christmas during the first lockdown but it is a hot topic among callers to the One Family helpline now during Level 5.
Everyone gets anxious about Christmas, says the organisation’s chief executive, Karen Kiernan, but it’s more stressful if you have to figure out shared parenting and who gets to spend what time with children. This year the pandemic further complicates everything.
Right now, they really can’t advise much “because nobody knows yet what Christmas 2020 is going to look like”.
The nature of calls to the Barnardos parent supportline has changed during the different phases of the pandemic, says a spokeswoman. At the start, the focus was predominantly on how to talk to a child about Covid-19; in the mid-phase parents were inquiring about the best ways to manage children’s behaviours and sibling dynamics.
Since the start of Level 5, queries in relation to financial assistance have become most common. Questions about custodial and access arrangements, dealing with household bills and how to manage parents’ own anxieties have continued throughout, she adds.
Meanwhile, Safe Ireland reports that domestic violence services are concerned about what might happen when the country opens up again after Level 5. The number of women accessing services decreased by 8 per cent during the first lockdown and then started to climb steadily as restrictions were slowly relaxed and victims were able to reach out for help.
Women’s Aid runs a 24-hour national helpline for victims of domestic violence and abuse on 1800 341 900.
Barnardos parent supportline is available Mon–Fri, 10am–2pm, 1800 910 123.
One Family helpline is open Mon-Fri, 10am-1pm and 2pm-3.30pm, on 1890 662 212.
Treoir’s helpline runs Mon-Fri, 10am-4pm, on 01 6700120.