I thank the committee for inviting us to present on our impact report. Domestic violence and child abuse are often interlinked. Domestic violence and child abuse may co-occur, with the perpetrator abusing his partner and also directly abusing the children. It has been recognised that exposing children to intimate partner abuse is itself a form of emotional child abuse, with detrimental effects on the child's development and well-being.
Last year, 19,089 contacts were made with Women's Aid's direct services, during which 16,994 disclosures of domestic violence against women were made, including physical, emotional, financial and sexual abuse. The kind of abuse women experienced includes being stalked, women and children being locked out of their homes overnight, being isolated from friends and family and being in fear of their lives because abusers threatened them with guns, knives and injury due to speeding in cars. This also includes 898 threats by the abusive partner to kill the woman, the children or her family, or to harm himself.
We heard 3,816 disclosures of physical abuse, including women having their hair pulled, being beaten, being smothered, strangled and hospitalised. We also heard 141 disclosures of abuse while the woman was pregnant, with a number of women experiencing miscarriage as a result. We heard 526 disclosures of women being coerced into sexual activity, having intimate videos and photos taken and shared without their consent, including 226 disclosures of women being raped by their intimate partners, including during pregnancy or after childbirth. We heard 1,540 disclosures of financial abuse, with women being denied access to the family income, having their own salaries or social welfare payments stolen or controlled by their abuser, being made to account for every penny spent and often being left without money for basic family needs. Women were left with broken bones and teeth, bruising, head injuries and internal injuries. Some women experienced miscarriages as a result of assaults and there were those who were experiencing post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression and exhaustion.
Many of the women who disclosed these tactics of abuse have children. In fact, 72% of the women who used our one-to-one services for the first time in 2018 had children. We know from the report of the European Agency for Fundamental Rights, FRA, that children are often aware of the violence experienced by their mothers and, therefore, we can confidently assume that a number of children in Ireland are aware of their mothers being abused as described above, either because they see the abuse happening or they see the aftermath. They may fear for themselves, they may want, or try, to intervene or they may know their mother cannot protect them and may fear she may be hurt or killed. We know that seeing, hearing or otherwise knowing about this abuse has a negative and profound impact on children. In addition, we heard of 3,728 disclosures of abuse of children in the context of domestic abuse, including children being physically, sexually and emotionally abused as well as witnessing the abuse against their mothers. In 432 cases disclosed to our helpline a social worker was involved.
Despite the range and severity of the impact of domestic violence on children, they are often the forgotten victims, with limited services and protection available.
They are affected by the lack of vital services such as refuges. In 2018, our 24-hour helpline made a total of 244 calls to refuges for women who could not make such a call themselves. On 126 occasions, or 52%, the refuges were full. Many of the women who made these calls had children with them but safe accommodation was simply not available for them. They then had to return to the abuser or become homeless. Another huge gap is the lack of counselling services for children who have experienced domestic violence, through either being witnesses to the violence against their mothers or being targeted directly. There are very few affordable and specialised services to assist children in their journey to recovery. Moreover, the consent of the abuser is needed for children to attend counselling. In our experience, such consent is often denied.
We have made a number of detailed recommendations in our submission in the context of research, guidelines, training, legal aid and the provision of supervised contact centres. The key principle binding these recommendations together is that there needs to be a recognition in law and in practice that the best interest of children is to live free from domestic violence, including from witnessing abuse against their mothers, and that any custody and access arrangements need to ensure this as a first priority.
I thank members for their attention.