Fear of homelessness forcing women back to abusers

More than 20% of women at Aoibhneas Dublin refuge went home after stay, says manager

Women who have fled domestic violence are returning to abusers after staying in a north Dublin refuge because of the housing crisis, a manager at the centre has said.

Refuge staff are also seeing a trend of women staying in highly volatile domestic violence situations because they fear they will become homeless if they leave.

Cristina Santamaria, interim manager at the Aoibhneas Women and Children's Refuge in Coolock, says homelessness is one of the biggest challenges faced by women and children who have been abused.

The crisis also means the centre, set up almost 30 years ago, took fewer families last year than it did in 2015, because it was difficult to find places for women and their children to move on to.


Short-stay refuge

The short-stay emergency refuge contains accommodation for 10 families, along with kitchen facilities, a sittingroom, a laundry, play area and garden. Clean and brightly painted, a typical family room contains bunk beds, a separate single bed, a cot, storage space, a bathroom and a small kitchen area with seating and a table.

Of women at the refuge last year, more than 90 per cent had been emotionally abused, almost 70 per cent were physically abused, and 38 of the women and three of the children presented with injuries. Weapons used on some women included a pen, a chair, a remote control, a sweeping brush, a hot drink and liquid bleach.

In 2016, 143 women and 225 children were accommodated there, down from 174 women and 292 children the previous year. Inevitably, the fewer families they can take in, the more they have to turn away.

Alternative accommodation

Last year they could not accommodate 498 families who asked for emergency shelter after experiencing domestic violence.

Ms Santamaria says last year, of the women accommodated, more than 20 per cent went back home to their abuser. For many, she said, it was because suitable alternative accommodation could not be found.

“We have seen single women coming through the system, ending up in a homeless hostel, even if pregnant,” she says. “In some cases, they may feel worse off.”

When there are children involved there is added trauma, she says. Some families end up in bed and breakfasts.

“Women consider well, at least if I go home, I may be better off, for whatever number of reasons.”

Challenging work

Staff at the centre have links with the county councils, with organisations such as Focus Ireland and with Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. But the work is challenging, difficult and time-consuming.

Women from outside Dublin also access the refuge. Ms Santamaria says they flee their area because it is dangerous for them to remain there and finding accommodation for them has additional challenges because they have to be referred back to their county.

Women and their children stay, on average, between six and eight weeks at the refuge, up from three to six weeks in earlier years. And because of the housing crisis, some now stay longer.

While they are there, supports are put in place to help meet their psychological, emotional and practical needs. Play therapy is provided for children. There are breakfast and after-school clubs.

If a woman does return home, whether because of homelessness or for other reasons, refuge staff help her to put a safety plan in place and the outreach team continues to provide support.

“There is never a judgment, we are not here to judge or tell people what to do, we are here to work with them and meet them where they are at, so if that is a decision they make, we support them in that,” says Ms Santamaria.

Aoibhneas helpline is (01) 867 0701

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland is a crime writer and former Irish Times journalist