It is deeply regrettable that domestic abuse and sexual violence are so prevalent across society that we are discussing these issues in the Dáil. However, I very much welcome the fact that Deputies are here and that people are participating in seeking ways to combat these horrific crimes and to be briefed on the response across the justice sector, particularly during the pandemic where special measures were required.
Over the past week we have seen a number of deeply distressing incidents. We cannot, of course, discuss individual cases in which Garda investigations are ongoing at the risk of prejudicing any eventual prosecutions. However, I want to comment briefly on two cases in which the criminal process has concluded.
No one can fail to have been moved by the tremendous bravery of Philomena Connors, Helen O'Donoghue, Mary Moran, Margaret Hutchinson, Anne O'Reilly, Bridget O'Reilly and Kathleen O'Driscoll, who spoke so powerfully last week following the conviction of their father for a catalogue of abuse against them over a long number of years. I believe there are questions to be answered. I expect that this will be done in due course by the appropriate agency.
Over the time of my membership of this House, we have seen a number of horrific cases, all of which resulted in inquiries and all of which were supposed to have drawn a line under these horrific events of child abuse. I refer to the Kilkenny incest inquiry, the Kelly Fitzgerald inquiry, the McColgan horrific experience, the Roscommon case in the west of Ireland - the "House of Horrors" as it was dubbed in the media - and now the O'Reillys. People are shocked and saddened. I believe it is absolutely essential that we now come to grips with these types of cases and that we ensure that every effort is made to support people. As one of the girls, I think, it was Helen, said last week when she was encouraging women to come forward, people should not be afraid. She also admitted, quite shockingly, "We were thrown to the wind".
It is absolutely essential, particularly for people who are marginalised, that we acknowledge they are the most vulnerable. Child abuse must be dealt with in a different way and, clearly, the State has not learned the lessons of the past.
Equally, no one can doubt the extraordinary resilience of Sonya Lee and her sisters Aisling and Natalie, who spoke this week of the life-changing impact of the horrific assault for which Sonya's former partner was recently convicted. I commend the tremendous strength of these brave women. Their dignified and courageous public comments are a call to action for all of society to fully address the scourge of domestic abuse and sexual violence in the home, both of which we are addressing this evening in Dáil Éireann. Domestic abuse and sexual violence are the most serious criminal offences. No one needs to deal with this alone. If I may, I wish to speak directly to those affected. If you are suffering, please reach out for help. To anyone with a suspicion or concern that such crimes are occurring, I ask you to please report this to the authorities to help us hold the perpetrators accountable.
Combating domestic abuse and sexual violence is a vital part of the national strategy for women and girls and the second national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The strategy is a living document that informs the direction the Government is taking, in partnership with civil society, to tackle these issues. Over the past number of years, and particularly since I became Minister, there has been a significant body of legislative reform, including the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 and the Domestic Violence Act 2018. These laws are monitored by my Department to ensure they are effective and to identify whether further changes are required. I have made the combating of domestic and sexual violence one of my core priorities as Minister for Justice and Equality. I was well aware, through my engagement with non-governmental organisations and victims, that crimes in both areas are under-reported and that a better evidence basis was required to drive forward Government policy in this area.
To achieve this, I took a number of actions. I asked an independent expert, the barrister Tom O'Malley, to chair a working group and report to me. I expect the report, which was somewhat delayed by Covid-19, to be on my desk within a matter of weeks. I established an independent study on domestic homicide reviews to inform future legislation, ensuring we can distil best practice internationally and set out the necessary supports for victims of familicide. I brought forward a proposal for another major national sexual violence prevalence study, or SAVI 2, which is under way.
Alongside this work, we are taking steps to challenge societal attitude. I published an expanded victims charter earlier this year and my Department has organised a number of awareness-raising campaigns. The "What would you do?" campaign on domestic violence ran from 2016 to 2018, while the "No excuses" campaign on sexual violence and harassment commenced last year and is scheduled to run through this year and the next. The results of a recent university survey on consent underscore again the importance of addressing societal attitudes to sexual violence and my Department continues to make progress on this vital work. In this area, I acknowledge the work of my colleague, the Minister of State, Mary Mitchell O'Connor.
I recognised that the restrictions necessary during Covid-19 would be incredibly difficult for those at risk of domestic violence and, early on, my Department reached out to our family of agencies to ensure that special measures were in place, including additional funding and supports for my Department and Tusla; provision by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, of emergency rent supplement; and priority by the Legal Aid Board and the Courts Service for domestic abuse and childcare issues, including a helpline. Further information on the organisations involved is available on the Still Here website.
I want to address Garda action at this time. The Garda indicates that for the year to date, it has recorded a 24% increase in the number of calls for assistance in respect of domestic abuse incidents. During the period of the pandemic, the number and rate of incidents have been tracked. Study of these data shows that the number of incidents increased steadily until week 19 at the beginning of May but that, thankfully, there has been a week-on-week decline since then. Of course, the situation needs to be kept under active review. Even before the Covid crisis, the Garda had been continuously improving its specialist services. Sixteen divisional protective services units, staffed by specially trained officers, have been rolled out and this process is ongoing. I very much hope to see it completed within weeks, without further delay. The specialisation will ensure that when victims of domestic abuse present to the Garda, at perhaps their most vulnerable moment, they are met with professional and expert assistance.
Deputies will be aware that Operation Faoiseamh was designed to ensure that victims of domestic abuse would be supported and protected during the pandemic. The first phase involved a proactive contacting of persons who had been victims in the past, while the second has involved a focus on perpetrators and, in particular, cases of persistent breaches of protection orders, safety orders or barring orders under the domestic violence legislation. From 1 April to the end of May, the Garda made more than 8,200 contacts or attempts to contact recorded victims of domestic abuse. I understand that feedback from victims, some of whom I met, has been overwhelmingly positive and that these proactive contacts have led to the identification of a large number of cases in which further action was warranted. I have also heard this positive feedback from local groups and other stakeholders and I see it as fully consistent with the community engagement and focus of An Garda Síochána. There is a lesson in that experience of the impact that a proactive approach can have in this most sensitive of areas.
Finally, I wish to clarify that these issues primarily cut across two Departments, while Tusla, under the Department of Children and Youth Affairs - I acknowledge the work of my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, in that area - is responsible for the provision of services and funding for victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The agency has taken a number of initiatives in recent times to augment services in this area.
I look forward to the contributions of Deputies. The cross-agency, interdepartmental approach, which has also included valuable input from the community and voluntary sector, has provided a template to build on, but there is no question of any laurel-resting here. I acknowledge there is a considerable body of work to be done on an ongoing basis. I hope and expect that lessons we will have learned from the pandemic, in this area and others, will allow us to further strengthen our national response to the issues of domestic violence and sexual violence in the home. While domestic abuse is not always immediately visible, the fact that it affects people in all ages groups and walks of life is very evident. The challenge of preventing and addressing it is similarly a task for the whole of Government and the whole of society.