A recent seminar in Ennis heard that a coordinated risk assessment plan must be implemented by all state agencies working with children and those affected by domestic abuse. Failure to do so, warned domestic violence consultant, Madeleine Bell, will lead to further cases of child deaths.
Ms Bell was addressing a Listening to the Child seminar organised by the Clare Local Area Network on Violence Against Women (CLAN). The event focused on the adverse affect domestic violence has on the children and emphasised the need for a coordinated safety planning and risk identification approach to working with women and children affected by domestic abuse.
Ms Bell’s report, Believe in Children, finds that almost three quarters (74%) of children on the child protection register live in households where domestic violence is present. She advocates that agencies should work together to assess the risks to children and said this needs to be carried out as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Over the last 20 years in Ireland, 16 children have been killed alongside their mothers by the perpetrators of domestic abuse.
Johnny O’Rourke from Clare Haven Services explained that it is essential to understand domestic abuse as a public health and safety issue. “It can only be effectively managed through a whole of community coordinated response”.
CLAN chairperson Sergeant Catriona Holohan maintained it is important that recognition is given to the effects of domestic abuse on children. “Children may be witnesses to the domestic abuse of their mother, but they may also be the direct victims of physical injury and emotional or sexual abuse. The abuse of children can also be used by the perpetrator as another form of control against the mother and that control can be crippling for women.”
Catriona, who is a Community Garda, said, “As a woman, a Garda and a member of CLAN, I hope this event encourages each person and each agency to work together to protect and keep our children safe and to ask the question of mothers, ‘what can we do to support you to keep you and your children safe?”
Jacqui Deevy of Tusla said the agency’s primary focus is to promote the safety and well being of children. It does so by working in partnership with other bodies to provide a range of community services that support children and families.
Inspector David Finnerty outlined how Gardaí work with victims of domestic violence and service providers such as Clare Haven and Haven Horizon. He acknowledged that women are often fearful of calling the Gardaí, as they fear this may lead to a referral to Tusla.
Inspector Finnerty explained, “Any referrals made by the Gardaí to Tusla are intended to initiate a support system for women living with domestic abuse, not to undermine the parenting of the mother.” He said follow up visits are undertaken after a report of domestic violence, the purpose of which was to ensure that the victim was okay and aware of all local supports.
“This also allows the victim an opportunity to make a report if she wishes to do so. All of these positive actions by the Gardaí are conducted with a view to ensuring the safety of mothers and children, and to breaking the cycle of domestic abuse,” he said.
Madeline McAleer of Haven Horizons, which focusses on preventing domestic violence, said, “Far too often we as a society or a service we think of the wellbeing and safety of these children as the responsibility of the mother, who is usually the most visible care-taker.
“We look to this vulnerable woman, who is emotionally, physically and often sexually abused herself, to protect and save her children from the perpetrator – when she is struggling to survive this abuse herself. It is important that support is in place to assist the mother and children.
“We must stop screening out perpetrators’ behaviour. We must put the focus on how his behaviour is creating emotional, physical and developmental problems for children and putting children at risk and in real danger,” she added.
According to Ms McAleer, it is often assumed that once the mother leaves or the children are removed from the family home, that they are safe. “In fact,” she said, “figures show that this is actually the most dangerous time for women and children. It is vital that all agencies work together to understand the dynamics of what is happening to children, assess the risk/danger and to review what actions need to be taken to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable and that we can guarantee safe, supportive environments for children to grow up in.”