Look from perpetrator can be enough to make a woman drop case, support worker says

Domestic violence court accompaniment worker suggests how system might improve

Tara Clancy, a court support worker for women experiencing domestic violence outside Naas Courthouse. Photograph: Laura Hutton

Tara Clancy, a court support worker for women experiencing domestic violence outside Naas Courthouse. Photograph: Laura Hutton

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Even a look across a courtroom from a perpetrator can be enough to intimidate a woman into dropping her case against him, says domestic violence court accompaniment worker Tara Clancy.

She was responding to a report in The Irish Times on Thursday, stating that while the number of domestic violence charges before the District Courts had almost doubled between 2019 and 2020, most prosecutions for those offences were struck out, withdrawn or dismissed.

“No one expects to end up in court looking for support for their own safety. It is so daunting and overwhelming and the process is not compassionate. The system I suppose has to treat everybody the same, but many of the women, by the time they get to court are so broken and the coldness of the system, they can find that awfully intimidating,” Ms Clancy says.

The only domestic violence court accompaniment worker in Co Kildare, she works three days a week in Naas. Her employer, Teach Tearmainn, which provides services – including refuge – to women and children experiencing domestic abuse, is not funded to provide a full-time position.

Since August 2021, she has supported 167 women engaging with the courts. Many women have been left without support, she says.

An evaluation of the service, published last May, quotes one woman saying she would not have been able to get though the court proceedings without the help of Teach Tearmainn.

Describing her work, Ms Clancy says: “It’s always, always busy. It is all types of abuse – emotional, coercive control, sexual, physical abuse. I could have one person come to the door one morning seeking support with a crisis application for a safety or barring order. I could have 10 the next morning.”

Guilty verdict

A “huge issue” is fear of not being believed and ultimately not getting the barring or safety order, or the guilty verdict, they need.

Among the first supports she offers is to believe the women. “When we do it’s a big relief. It’s such an empowering experience just to be believed. Then you see them at the next stage, maybe a full hearing and you see their confidence building, that’s empowering.”

She supports women to articulate what has happened to them, even where many professionals in the courts, she says, do not properly understand domestic abuse.

Vital, she says, is mandatory training for professionals, including judges, solicitors and court clerks on the dynamics of domestic abuse and coercive control, including on how abusers can use the courts system to continue the abuse.

“We often see, if she applies for a safety order the perpetrator might retaliate with their own application for an order, or make an application for access when they have no intention of seeing the children, as a mechanism to bring the woman to court as another form of abuse.”

Repeated adjournments lead women to “lose faith in the system” while unsuccessful safety or barring order applications leave many women hesitating about continuing engagement with the system.

“It is a traumatic experience to not get the result they need. That woman will feel first that they weren’t listened to and the biggest thing, that they weren’t believed. That might affirm what the perpetrator was telling them, that: ‘No one is going to believe you’.”

Remote hearings

A significant step would be the option of remote hearings in domestic abuse cases, which would protect women from the daunting court setting and possible intimidation from perpetrators or their families. It could also help where childcare is an issue, if they could ‘attend’ court from a domestic violence support service that provided childcare.

Strengthening sanctions should be looked at, as “many women do not feel they are enough”.

Asked if she finds her work draining, she says in fact she gains a lot from it. “The women I work with are some of the strongest women you could meet, though I know they don’t feel it at the time. If you could hear the stories, and yet they are still going, and their priority is their children. They are remarkable.”

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