Second Opinion: Strategies for domestic violence should focus on perpetrators

Launching a new report on domestic violence, Sharon O'Halloran, the chief executive officer of SafeIreland, said "the legal system at every level is failing women and children who are living with violence and abuse". The Lawlessness of the Home report highlights huge inconsistencies in dealing with perpetrators and victims, the fragmentation of services, and the impact of stereotyping – must "be white, compliant, not too angry" – on the lives of women and children.

“Most domestic violence perpetrators are not convicted and, when they are convicted, jail time is rare. Existing law is often applied badly or not at all.”

Why is this still happening in 2015? Despite our National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence 2010-2014, an estimated one in four women continues to experience violence at the hands of a spouse or partner. The legal system seems to be unable to stop it.

According to the report, “the actual number of women who continue to live with domestic violence is unknown: the majority of women never report the violence or seek assistance”. Reasons for not contacting the Garda include shame, embarrassment, fear of reprisal, wanting to keep it private, discouraged or stopped from reporting by friends and family, or that the women thought it was their own fault and did not want to get the offender into trouble. No other crime is thought about in this way. Figures from the Central Statistics Office show that nearly 27,000 houses were burgled last year. People whose homes are burgled do not think the crime is their fault.


Orla O'Connor, director of the National Women's Council of Ireland, recently stated, "We are light years away from recognising and understanding the serious impact domestic violence has on the lives of women and, in many instances, their children." Despite its impact on mental and physical health, domestic violence is not taken seriously. The Central Statistics Office records crime figures but does not collect separate figures for domestic violence, which are included with all other assaults. Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, is now responsible for providing "a national oversight of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services". The agency's new Corporate Plan 2015-2017 refers to these services only in the context of children and families. Women are not mentioned in their own right.

The 2014 Crime Investigation Report from the Garda Inspectorate showed that domestic violence cases were not always recorded correctly, and there was limited evidence that domestic violence policy was audited or monitored to ensure its implementation. Domestic violence services provided by An Garda Sìochána have now been subsumed into a new unit that includes human trafficking and exploitation. Will the takeover of domestic violence services by Tusla or the new Garda unit eliminate the problems highlighted in The Lawlessness of the Home report? It seems unlikely as Cosc, the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, retains the strategic brief and remains within the remit of the Department of Justice.

A review of the first Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (DSGBV) national strategy was carried out by Cosc in 2014 to identify issues that must be addressed in any new strategy.

A report by the school of law at the University of Limerick found inconsistencies in the way domestic violence was dealt with by the courts (some requiring medical evidence, others not), by local authorities (housing), and by statutory and voluntary services.

Courts respond differently to breaches of domestic violence orders, attrition rates are high, and there are few court- mandated, domestic violence perpetrator programmes. The review found that “the profile of DSGBV needs to move from advertising frontline services [for victims] to increasing societal awareness about the prevalence and realities of DSGBV”.

This is a key point. When it comes to domestic violence, the conversation is almost exclusively about the women on the receiving end. SafeIreland, which has 40 member organisations, produces annual statistics about the women who use domestic-violence services. There are no annual statistics about the men who commit this crime. Who are they? “Violent thug” is not stamped on their forehead. They are ordinary people – husbands, grandfathers, fathers, sons, nephews, uncles, brothers, male friends and acquaintances – who think they have a right to control women.

In December 2014, Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald made a statement to the Dáil about domestic violence. She wants 2015 "to be the year when we put the rights of the victim at the heart of the criminal justice system". What about the perpetrators? Why not make catching and punishing the perpetrators the priority? Until the focus shifts from the victims to the perpetrators, nothing will change. Dr Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion and a member of the Healthy Ireland Council.