Covid-19 restrictions have led to ‘shadow pandemic’ of abuse

Domestic abuse groups have outlined the deficiencies in support services to Oireachtas

Public health measures designed to curb the spread of Covid-19 have led to a “shadow pandemic” involving an escalation of violence for survivors of domestic abuse as a consequence of families being locked-down with perpetrators, stakeholders have said.

Representatives from a number of organisations working with women and men in domestic abuse situations gave evidence to the Oireachtas justice committee on Wednesday on the topic of women’s shelters and domestic abuse refuges.

Saoirse Domestic Violence Services chief executive Allison Graham said that since opening its Tallaght refuge 16 years ago, the group has not had the space to accommodate all the requests for refuge.

“This unfortunately is the same experience in every refuge across Ireland,” she said. “There just are not enough spaces.

“In 2020, we had to turn away 369 requests for refuge from women and children fleeing for their lives. That equates to us not been able to offer safe shelter to 78 per cent of the requests in that year alone.

“Every person has been touched by the Covid-19 pandemic and none more so than survivors of domestic violence. The shadow pandemic refers to the escalation of the violence as a consequence of families being locked-down with perpetrators during restrictions.

“They were unable to make a call to family, friends, a support service or even the gardaí, as their every move was being monitored.

“Children out of school due to Covid-19, living in abuse 24/7, with no escape from the environment for even short periods, or to get support from a grandparent or teacher, has been devastating to them.”

Safe Ireland chief executive Mary McDermott told parliamentarians Ireland’s domestic violence accommodation infrastructure is “critically deficient” placing women, and children “at very real risk of grievous trauma, injury or fatality”.

She said there were 57,277 calls to local and national helplines in 2020 as well as 23,785 incidents reported to gardaí and 4,000 breaches of protective orders.

“With only 144 refuge spaces available across the entire country, domestic violence services faced unmet requests for refuge from 1,351 women between March and August 2020,” she said.

“Without the corporate assistance of Airbnb who generously made hotel beds available for refuge, the outcomes for women and children would have been much bleaker.”

Men’s Aid chief executive Kathrina Bentley said the group supported more than 5,000 men last year, and that it expects this number to increase to 8,000 men this year.

“Government research from 2005 showed that 95 per cent of abuse experienced by men is not reported to gardaí,” she said. “The under reporting of domestic violence is a huge concern, highlighting how difficult it is for men to report an abusive partner.

“Men in Ireland are aware there are no refuge options so don’t usually ask however to date we have had over 30 requests for a safe bed this year.”

Women’s Aid spokeswoman Christina Sherlock said Ireland does not have enough refuge places available to meet the standards of the Istanbul Convention – an international treaty on combatting violence against women.

She said there are currently nine counties without refuges. “This urgently needs to be addressed,” she said, adding that funding is a “significant issue” in the area of domestic violence and abuse.

“Funding for refuges needs to be increased urgently to meet the surge in demand brought on by the pandemic and to maintain compliance with Covid-19 health regulations,” she said.

“Funding is also needed for the provision of specialist children’s support in refuges and to fund qualified external supervision support for all domestic violence specialist support workers.”