At least 11,000 women struggling with addiction are also experiencing domestic violence, with almost 50,000 having endured these simultaneously at some stage in their lives, a report published on Wednesday finds.
Entitled In plain sight?: A Rapid Review of the International Literature and a National Estimate of the Prevalence of Women Who Use Substances and Experience Domestic Violence in Ireland, it is the first study of its kind conducted in the State.
Published by the Davina (domestic violence is never acceptable) Project which is part of Saol, a woman-only addiction support service in north inner-city Dublin, the report says these women are largely “unseen and their needs unknown”.
It says many women are “suffering from multiple traumas as a result of domestic violence, whether it be in childhood or adulthood” and “are vulnerable to re-victimisation and substance use as adults”.
Due to feeling shame and stigma about both issues “they are forced to experience a duality of secrecy for the protection of themselves and their children”, it says. Barriers to seeking treatment include the fear of losing custody of their children, feeling judged by professionals and an inability to engage because of a controlling partner.
The project was founded last June in response to the “depth” of abuse and coercive control the women Saol supported were enduring in their homes during lockdown, says services manager Réidín Dunne.
“We were going out to see how they were getting on with their addiction. The domestic violence just came into such sharp focus. The only way the men would let us visit was if we brought food. We had to ring him beforehand because she didn’t have a phone,” she said.
“On one occasion we were so naive – he didn’t answer but we said we’d drop round anyway. When we arrived he came down f***ing and blinding and telling us to get out . . . She came down and stood physically between him and us.
“We kept having these experiences and we couldn’t unknow it. We were looking at women through windows, hiding behind curtains . . . The husband would come down and collect the food even though she was our client.”
Staff realised, Ms Dunne said, that when women attended Saol pre-pandemic, “we would see them here here, suited and booted and ready to work. But suddenly we were seeing them in their homes, terrified”.
The establishment of the Davina Project has “transformed how we ask the questions about domestic violence”, she added. Rather than asking if it’s an issue – to which most will say ‘no’ – staff will ask whether their relationship is good. Saol supported 305 women last year, up from 225 in 2020.
“I can say every single woman who has come to Saol this year is either in a violent relationship or has been. The majority of the women would have had abuse in their childhoods. The trauma that leads to the drug use, doesn’t come from nowhere. It leaves them so vulnerable.”
The report, conducted by the school of nursing and midwifery in Trinity College Dublin, draws on data sources including the Central Statistics Office, Health Research Board, gardaí and international research.
Applying proven multiplier methods it estimates “conservatively” in 2020 that “at least 11,000 women suffered the duality of hidden domestic violence and personal substance use within that year alone. Furthermore, at least 48,000 of women who used substances in 2020 had experienced these challenges in their lifetime.”
Ms Dunne, manager of services with the Saol project, says trauma, violence and addiction are “inextricably linked”. But she said most refuges will not accept a woman with addiction issues, while most addiction services “don’t want to know about domestic violence”.
The report makes a range recommendations, including further research and “additional, enhanced, and targeted trauma informed services” to support these women.
CASE STUDY: Woman felt ‘like a princess’ because partner only hit her twice a year
For Chloe (42), “it was the norm to get battered” as a child.
“My mother, she had been a victim of sexual abuse as very young child and it messed her up. She never got the help,” she said.
“She was always taking her humours out on me. She battered me every day. I was getting bullied in school. I had a group I thought were my pals in town. These lads were 16 or 17 and they introduced me to smoking heroin . . . As soon as I heard, ‘It makes your problems go away’, I knew it was for me.”
The father of Chloe’s first child left her while she was pregnant.
“He was violent. He spat at me, was always with different women on me,” she said.
"I was living in hostels with my baby, trying to stay clean, but I relapsed. I met a pure charmer at a shop in Ballyfermot, who became like a father to my daughter. After the way I had been treated I thought he treated me like a princess. I felt really safe with him until he had me committing robberies for him. Before I knew it he forcibly injected me with heroin."
He moved into her flat. “When I got pregnant I got clean. Every six months I’d get a big clatter but I was so used to getting my head slapped I thought it was okay because it was only twice a year. I thought, ‘he treats me like a princess because he only hits me twice a year’.
“Back then, coming from where I coming from, always being in fear, I thought that was normal. And the best way to escape that ‘normal’ is drugs. It fills the emptiness when you don’t know what’s wrong.”
Chloe’s two children, deemed at risk of the escalating violence, were taken into care. “I was so traumatised trying to keep my babies safe and there was no one to keep me safe. He got access to my children while I wasn’t even allowed go to review meetings because the foster parents felt threatened by me. So while he was getting access, I ended up in a psychiatric hospital for eight weeks.”
She started attending Saol five years ago. “This became my safe haven. I got stable on methadone and I am working as a peer support for Davina. I have so many “if onlys” in my life. If only I had had Davina back then.
“I felt shame, because people say, ‘how can you pick the wrong person again and again? How can you be so blind?’ Davina taught me I didn’t pick them, they picked me. They’re the predators.”