Women's Aid Impact Report 2018: Discussion

I welcome members, and also viewers who may be watching proceedings on Oireachtas TV, to the public session of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. The purpose of the meeting is to meet, in session one, representatives of Women's Aid to discuss the organisation's Impact Report 2018, "Children let down by the system" and, in session two, representatives of the Children's Rights Alliance to discuss the organisation's Report Card 2019.

On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Margaret Martin, director of Women's Aid and Ms Ursula Regan, chair of the board of Women's Aid.

They are both very welcome.

Before we commence, in accordance with procedure I am required to draw the attention of the witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I remind our guests and those in the Public Gallery to either switch off their mobile phones or place them in flight mode. This is because they interfere with our sound system. I advise our guests that any submissions they have made or opening statements they may make to the committee will be published on its website after this meeting. Following their presentations, there will be questions from the members.

I now call on Ms Martin and Ms Regan to make their opening statements.

Ms Margaret Martin

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.

I thank Ms Martin and Ms Regan for their presentation. They have presented some startling facts. I offer the floor to the Vice Chairman, Senator Freeman.

It is horrifying to listen to the facts presented, many of which I could not even absorb. I have just two brief questions. Ms Martin stated that there is little or no service available to children when they witness violence in the home. What services are available and what needs to be done in this regard?

I know that our guests represent Women's Aid and that this is about women, but children also witness violence in the home where the female is the perpetrator. Do our guests have any information about this? If there is an organisation that deals with it, does it come together with Women's Aid, again for the child's sake?

Ms Margaret Martin

Regarding the refuge services that are available, there is very often a support worker for the woman and then a support worker for the children, so children will have a support worker working with them while they are in a refuge. The difficulty, as I outlined, is that there is very often a shortage of space and that refuges are turning away significantly more women and children than they are accommodating. We had a recent consultation with women on family law, and one concern from mothers that came up consistently was the lack of therapy and support for their children and the fact that where it is available it is costly and that very often the therapist does not really understand the impact of domestic violence. It is a very particular situation and understanding its dynamics and the level of threat under which women sometimes struggle is really important to understanding how to support these women and their children.

There will be children who are abused by their mothers. This is not something people come to us about. Most of our calls come from women themselves and about 3% are from men. Sometimes they are fathers; a lot of the time they are women's supports, perhaps a new partner, etc.

Women's Aid is not aware of any figures for other men's-----

Ms Margaret Martin

We are not. We met the Children's Rights Alliance, Barnardos and One Family Ireland fairly recently to look for some kind of support on foot of the increased emphasis of the voice of the child, as provided for in the Children and Family Relationships Act. It is a matter of being able to bring that voice centre stage in court proceedings and there being some kind of research and consultation with children on their experience. Something like that might bring some of the answers to the question Senator Freeman asks.

I have an observation to make on one of Ms Martin's closing remarks. She stated, "the consent of the abuser is needed for children to attend counselling" and she made reference to the children being witness to these incidents, which is horrifying to me, not only as a parent but as a parliamentarian as well.

Is there a remedy for that aside from guardianship ad litem, which comes much later in the process? Is there an obstacle to a child accessing counselling services if the mother consents? Is there some sort of blockage I am not picking up on?

Ms Ursula Regan

Most professionals will seek the consent of both parents for a child to be taken in as a patient. This includes psychologists and family therapists, to whom a child might be referred for a variety of reasons though this context concerns domestic violence. My experience is also as a family law solicitor. I am in court on a regular basis. In my experience, refusing to consent to a child being seen by a therapist is a standard blocking tactic used by perpetrators of domestic violence. The only way around that is to bring a separate application before the court under the Child and Family Relations Act 2015 for the parent's consent to be dispensed with in the interests of the child's welfare so that this procedure can take place.

Without asking the professionals why they seek both parents' consent for the child to access custody, can Ms Regan see a way around that under current legislation, given her professional experience with both hats on?

Ms Ursula Regan

The only way to proceed if an individual is refusing consent and the professional will not take it on because doing so would leave them open to charges-----

Change is required.

Ms Ursula Regan

Change is required in that respect. At the moment the only option is an application to court.

How long does that delay the process in Ms Regan's experience, presuming that an order for a child to access counselling with only one parent's consent is granted?

Ms Ursula Regan

That brings us into the realm of the operation of the District Court, which is the court before which the application is most likely to be brought. The main court complex for the Dublin area is Dolphin House, which has four courts sitting per day, five days a week. An application to dispense with consent would be regarded as an emergency application. Given the volume of business, it now takes three months from the date an application is made to bring it before the court if it is not considered an emergency. It might take longer. A case can be made if there is an emergency, and an applicant will certainly be moved up the list. However, it is not an immediate application by any standard. Quite simply, Dolphin House cannot cope with its current volume of business.

I thank Ms Regan for that information. It is obviously very pertinent to the work of the committee in ensuring that children are accessing services.

I thank Ms Regan. Like my colleague, I was horrified by those statistics. As a family law practitioner in a former life, I am well used to the corridors of Dolphin House and what goes on there. It is not unfamiliar territory. I will ask all my questions and then perhaps we can interact after that. Ms Regan referred to refuges and their inability to facilitate women. Is there a standard procedure linking refuges with their local authorities to access emergency accommodation and prevent women and children from heading back to the family home and the abuser? Is somebody equipped to liaise with the local authority? My next question concerns ease of access to legal aid. In the past women definitely had difficulties with the standard contribution. I know there is a waiver system, but it was often quite difficult to get the waiver. Could Ms Regan comment on access to legal aid? Once a legal aid certificate is acquired, how easy is it to get a private practitioner to take on a very vulnerable client?

Reference was made to the family law courts. In one way, we are spoiled in Dublin by having Dolphin House, a dedicated family law court. Elsewhere, family law sessions are often mixed with other sessions. The three-month wait that exists in Dublin could be six months in other places. Has Women's Aid made any submissions or representations to the Department of Justice and Equality about the promised new family law complex? A big hole in the ground is awaiting development. I refer also to the provision of proper facilities for cases. Last Christmas, a judge was held hostage in Dolphin House. That was a very serious incident. The previous Christmas, a judge and a practitioner were attacked in Dolphin House. A lot of tensions are heightened in the run-up to Christmas. Does Ms Regan have an opinion on the provision of that family law complex?

Finally, migrant communities are growing. How is the Children's Rights Alliance accessing those communities? Does it provide translated materials or work with various outreach groups? Can our guests provide some information in that regard?

I thank the Senator for her very pertinent questions.

Ms Margaret Martin

We have a freephone national helpline to deal with refuge needs. We are in touch with a great many refuges. The problem for a lot of them is that there is nowhere to send women. In the past they were sent to homeless hostels, bed and breakfast establishments, etc. The difficulty is that these women are often at very high risk. When a woman in this position leaves her partner, the risk escalates significantly. Domestic violence services always put safety at the core of their work with women. They have safety measures to protect women, children etc. In regard to local authorities, the unfortunate reality is that there is sometimes difficulty for women trying to access refuge outside the county they live in. There can be good relationships between local authorities where there is some openness to that. We have sometimes heard of cases where women are not accepted in their local areas.

We also receive calls from gardaí who might have a woman and three kids who are at very high risk in the back of a car. The garda needs to find a refuge space and asks us to name anywhere in the country where protection can be found, offering to take them there. However, no refuge is available anywhere. There are Council of Europe guidelines on this issue and we have about a third of the refuge space we need. That is significant.

I will address the question on migrants and perhaps Ms Regan will deal with the others. Migrants definitely have significant additional needs. Isolation is very much a tactic in cases of domestic violence. If a victim has a language difficulty, the isolation process can be much easier and more effective. For the last several years our helpline has had access to translation services in 170 different languages in less than a minute so that if somebody contacts us they can speak in his or her own mother tongue. It is a difficult subject to talk about. We share that service with refuges, and sometimes we are able to set up calls with refuges, the Garda, etc. However the service is not available as standard. That is a major issue. A significant number of migrant women use the services. We have links in that community and did an awful lot of work over a long period with the Immigrant Council of Ireland. There are a lot of really good connections there. Language is one of the big considerations. In addition to having things that are more accessible for people with difficulties, our website has sign language for deaf women and BrowseAloud software for people with sight issues. A lot of parts can be text-read. All of our information is available in about eight different languages.

Ms Ursula Regan

To address the Senator's question on legal aid, the reality is that there is a two-tier legal aid system in place.

There is a criminal legal aid system that has immediate availability and urgency with respect to legal representation. I do not understand it but the same criteria do not-----

There was a significant cut in family law legal aid fees, as I am sure Ms Regan is aware. This cut did not extend to the criminal legal aid system.

Ms Ursula Regan

I am aware of that and it has had a major impact on women and children. If somebody is eligible for legal aid is not bringing a "front-loaded" case, for want of a better description, in respect of domestic violence but is going to the Legal Aid Board to go through the process of separation or divorce, in certain counties that person will wait up to a year for that legal representation. The person may be separating from a violent partner, although not by way of a barring order application. In the context of the legal aid boards in Dublin, the wait is probably somewhere between four and six months for an initial consultation and then it takes on a life of its own after that. There is a private practitioner scheme available where domestic violence is an issue. To a certain degree, that works but there is no continuity in it. In dealing with a woman who is fragile and the subject of domestic violence, or with children who have witnessed or been caught up in the brutality of domestic violence, there must be continuity in legal representation. If they have to go to different people and try to explain the position all over again, they will give up because of the level of frustration that arises. Excluding cases of domestic violence but including cases of guardianship, access to children and maintenance, it was confirmed to me the other day that in certain legal aid cases, a woman will not get more than one legal aid certificate per year.

That has been the case for a number of years. Often proceedings are adjourned to allow for interim reports. There could be 12 court appearances with one legal aid certificate. I do not know if members of the committee are aware of the fee with respect to a legal aid certificate. It is €339. I know many practitioners during the recession started taking on legal aid cases but as the legal and other areas have picked up, they are turning away and taking the meatier legal aid cases, perhaps leaving somebody who might have a difficult case, such as one involving domestic violence, that might require many reports over 12 months. That is because the fees are so pitiful. Rather than the process being kept in-house, it is going to the private practitioner panel.

Ms Ursula Regan

To follow up on the fees issue, the Constitution was amended so the voice of the child would be heard in court and the Child and Family Relationships Act 2015 provided for reports to be done for the court to facilitate a judge in circumstances where an application is brought before him or her for a barring order, for example. As night follows day, there would be an application for access. Looking at the volume of work in Dolphin House, there are between 12 and 15 cases listed per court per day. Trying to get a proper hearing if there are complicated matters and trying to get an understanding of dynamics in a household with domestic violence takes some time. It takes time to examine a fragile witness and get the full story of what is going on. There would also have to be a certain reading between the lines.

A scheme was set up to provide for reports to be done on children. An arbitrary age division was taken so now if children are over 12, by and large they are interviewed by judges; if they are over five or six but under 12, a report is compiled. That is certainly of assistance to the court.

However, at the time, a very low fee structure was put in place in a process not unlike the cuts we mentioned in legal aid. Only a handful of these experts compile reports for the court and, because of this, the delays in those reports run anything from six months upwards. One can just imagine the damage being done to a child or children during that period.

This brings us back to the problem that when legislation is introduced, it may seem good, strong and progressive on the face of it but if there is not the requisite support behind it or the system to enforce it, that legislation will come to naught in the end. We have very strong legislation in this area and the voice of the child is being heard. It looks great when we read it and it seems progressive and that it would tick every box. I hate using the expression but it looks like that until we drill down into the issue and realise that support systems are not there.

When it takes so long to get the report, there would be several trips back to court.

Ms Ursula Regan

Yes.

They are exhausting trips for the client and often this exhaustion leads to the person involved abandoning the process. The fee structure is low for those expert reports, the children are being damaged and the process is abandoned.

Ms Margaret Martin

There was a question about the family law courts. We have made submissions in the area, taking in infrastructure that should be there when attending the court. One of the developments we are pleased about is that there is a drop-in support and referral service in Dolphin House. We had been getting calls from women who told us they were on the bus going to Dolphin House and asked us what they needed to know. We have been working really well with the Courts Service so the women can get a recommendation to go to the fourth floor. At least if they do not get a barring or safety order, they can come back and some safety planning can be done. We would like to see a suite of supports and welfare as part of the family law court process.

The delays regarding the Hammond Lane project are deeply disappointing. I know the matter was aired in the media again in the past couple of days but the current infrastructure is really poor. Anybody involved in the process has stated that it is totally inadequate. There needs to be a commitment to addressing this matter.

Do clients have difficulty getting the legal aid contribution waiver or has the process improved?

Ms Margaret Martin

That has improved to some extent. We also feed into the board and there has been much progress in that regard.

I thank our guests for their presentation. I have some brief questions. The Minister outlined in a reply to a parliamentary question from me in March that nine counties have no domestic violence refuge. Do the witnesses know the level of demand in any of those counties or are they familiar with such data? Will they indicate what it is like for a woman to have to travel to another county because services do not exist in her county?

Ms Margaret Martin

Our experience with refuges is that, unfortunately, many women will flee and seek refuge but be turned away. As already stated, any action, particularly towards separation, tends to escalate risk for these women. It is really important that services are available throughout the country. Some women will want refuge or to use services in their own county but others would say they need to be 100 miles away or that they are in Dublin but need to be somewhere else.

We need an infrastructure or network that will allow us to meet all of those needs. It is not a case of one size fits all. Our experience is that many women are at very high risk. While there has been good progress on the domestic violence legislation and the responses from the Garda, there will be a need for refuge for a very long time yet. We have to admit this is the case and meet that need. A refuge is a safe space. Very often it is a guarded space with locked doors to protect women and children. Unfortunately that option has to be there. An awful lot of women or even their children have told us - and told me personally - for example, that they were in the Women's Aid refuge in Harcourt Street donkey's years ago and they can remember the black bags, sleeping on the floor and whatever, but that it really made such a difference. Women may have to go to refuges a number of times. The provision of refuge is inadequate in Ireland and that needs to be addressed. The more isolated women are, the higher the level of risk for them.

That brings me to the next question. Ms Martin mentioned that half of the places were full. We have seen the Council of Europe agree that we are way below the recommendations.

Ms Margaret Martin

We only have one third.

Where is the bar? What would Women's Aid like to see?

Ms Margaret Martin

We would like us to meet that bar. One of the things that gives me heart is the fact that we have ratified the Istanbul convention. It provides a really positive framework for addressing an issue like this. It has four pillars that are all very important. There is the issue of prevention and the work that has to happen, including training, awareness, and the work that happens in schools; and the issue of protection, the Garda and the refuges. The part that is very inadequate is the whole issue of prosecutions and penalties. We are doing a sentencing watch to look at this. There are a lot of men who are repeat offenders. They have left one partner, who has escaped, and they have moved on to another partner. They are very dangerous. The expertise of the Garda has increased to some extent in realising that. It needs to be addressed much more seriously. We also need a strong-arm approach in the context of monitoring. While the legislation that we have may look very effective and is extremely welcome, we need more than just the recipe for the cake. We need to be able to eat the cake as well. Unfortunately while we can see that a lot of this is working, it is not dropping down to the ground. There are women still sleeping in cars. Women are couch surfing. Women have had to move their kids. We were seeing this before we had a homelessness crisis; the committee can imagine how much more compounded the problem is now.

Ms Martin referred to access visits in respect of children. I can only imagine that a child who has witnessed domestic violence and is suddenly told he or she has an access visit might not want to go. Sometimes he or she could be dropped off or picked up late. It is traumatic for a child, I imagine. Could Ms Martin elaborate on what she said about supervised access and facilities for the children?

Ms Margaret Martin

One of the things we commonly hear, for example, is where a woman has gotten a barring order but has to provide access on Saturday. She is asking how she can do that in a way that is safe for her and the children. There was an evidence-based development whereby Barnardos and One Family developed contact centres around Dublin. They were not specifically for domestic violence but they were a good model. There was a lot of feedback and one of the things we heard from them was that the issue of domestic violence was coming up very significantly among those children, to the extent that the organisations wrote to the court on some occasions to say they were fearful about the contact the father might have with those children. A lot of women are really fearful about their children going on access visits. They may be fearful about sexual or physical abuse, neglect, speeding in cars and numerous things. We need a risk assessment process for children in order to assess how safe they will be. We need infrastructure that will allow safe contact. Supervised access could take place in buildings that have different entrances and exits so that the woman does not have to see her abusive partner. It could ensure that the child is safe and that the access can happen when appropriate.

At the moment, the courts tend to disregard domestic violence and see it as something between the parents, rather than understanding that it has a significant impact on children. Many children will go very happily and will be disappointed if their father does not turn up; that may be the issue for them. However, an awful lot of children are absolutely terrified and do not want to go. They have to wait until they are 18 before they can refuse to go. A lot of developments need to happen. The risk assessment would determine ability to have safe contact. The supports and therapy should also be in place for children in terms of dealing with the relationship, which is a very complex one for them to deal with.

How many contact centres are there?

Ms Margaret Martin

There are none. There is no supervised access context in Ireland at all. There was a pilot, which preceded the development of Tusla, in which Barnardos and One Family ran three centres. There are a couple of ad hoc arrangements around the country. There used to be a priest in Dublin who allowed his community hall to be used. Women would have to bring their kids down to the local Garda station, even on Christmas Day. They have to go somewhere public. We are trying to look at the safety issue and mitigate the risk for them. There needs to be proper infrastructure with policies, buildings and the back-up personnel who are trained and understand this, and are able to provide the service.

Would supervised access involve social workers? What would we look for?

Ms Margaret Martin

It would be about having somebody who understands the dynamics of domestic violence, who is able to see if inappropriate things are happening and can feed that back in monitoring what is going on. Many women would welcome their child having a relationship with the father but it is a difficult situation for them to be in when they do not know if the child will be safe. Some men use it as a threat. They may send photographs saying, "We are here, we are at the sea, I might drive the car off the pier and you might never see us." People completely underestimate the level of threat that exists in a large number of domestic violence cases. Until there is recognition of this, the responses are not going to be developed. We are dealing with this inadequacy all the time.

According to the presentation, children have witnessed domestic violence and some have even experienced it themselves physically. If they are looking for services, are they prioritised in any way or do they join the long list?

Ms Margaret Martin

To my knowledge there is one service, TLC Kidz, which Barnardos runs in Tipperary. There is a serious lack of a network of similar supports for children. I sit on the national monitoring committee on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, and another thing that has been difficult is the resistance on the part of the Department of Education and Skills to recognising that abuse happens in the home. I have brought it up countless times at the committee, as have a number of people. The officials say the Department has had much more of a focus on "stranger danger". While it is important to have that, for many children this is something that has existed since before they were able to talk. We should not expect them even to be able to verbalise it. We have to find a way to support children in an age-appropriate way all the way through their lives. Those supports are sadly very inadequate. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is currently considering some curriculum changes, which presents an opportunity. However, people have to understand that this is something that is happening in a significant number of homes.

It has an impact on children. We need a variety of responses so that where children are experiencing it, they can talk to somebody about it. The main thing that they pick up on is the shame, stigma and safety issues, and very few of them will talk about it. They are unlikely to even talk about the level of threat to themselves.

Many of the questions that I was going to ask have been asked, so I thank the witnesses for their answers. Senator Clifford-Lee mentioned local authorities and local authority housing. In a situation where somebody is under pressure or there is domestic violence, what are the experiences of the witnesses with regard to interaction with local authorities, especially for people living in local authority houses when trying to get a transfer out of the house or to seek other local authority housing? They are locked in with means tests and such with their partners. How can one navigate that, given the dangers of divulging information?

With regard to people in private accommodation, a woman rang me recently who has been with somebody for 25 or 30 years and wants to go because of the situation. She cannot apply for local authority housing because she owns half a house. There are all those implications. In my experience, this arose often with men contacting me ten or 15 years ago as a result of marriages breaking up, particularly men in their 50s. A man would own half a house with his wife and, therefore, could not get on a local authority list. This is it in a different guise but the same matters pertain with regard to assets. Has there been any progress in local authorities regarding these hard cases or does the status quo still exist?

Ms Margaret Martin

I would like to be able to answer the Deputy's questions. The experience that we have had is that, while in the past we might have been able to make some progress in supporting women with those issues, it has been very difficult with the housing crisis. Under the national steering committee on violence against women, there were regional committee meetings in each county. Local authorities came together to look at the issue of domestic sexual and gender-based violence at those. Many of them were able to develop contacts and have reciprocal arrangements that helped. It also meant that the issue of domestic violence was on their agenda much more so. Those committees have since ceased. They have not been in situ for a number of years.

Why did they cease?

Ms Margaret Martin

It was a decision by the Department of Justice and Equality to keep the national monitoring committee. The regional committee meetings then ceased. They were supported through the HSE, as far as I recall. Much work was done by the national steering committee, with guidelines fed in by Safe Ireland, Sonas, us and a range of domestic violence services. The difficulty was trying to implement them. The Department said to us that the concept of subsidiarity meant that one had to recognise the decision-making process at local level. It tended to get stuck. Our experience is that it was an area where about half of our time was spent in courts. The same time was spent supporting women with housing options. That has fallen away because of the housing crisis, because we have not been able to have any impact in that sector. There are not enough housing options.

I understand that but I am speaking about the bureaucracy and the process of getting on the housing list. If somebody gets on the housing list, he or she can access HAP if he or she is lucky enough to secure private rented accommodation. Ms Martin is saying that those bottlenecks still exist and there has been no progress on that, and that now these regional assemblies have ceased to exist.

Ms Margaret Martin

They have for a number of years.

Given what Ms Martin is aware of, what might there be that she is not aware of?

Things are often stigmatised or brushed under the carpet. While it can be difficult to answer, how many people are going through challenging situations and have not come forward? Is there any anecdotal evidence in this regard?

Ms Margaret Martin

The research that I referred to from the EU Fundamental Rights Agency was the last substantial research done on violence against women. It included face-to-face interviews in each country and one can access those data. That gives some sense of the figures. Anecdotally, people often ask me if I think that the level of domestic violence is increasing. When we get a high level of promotion, there is an increase in the demand for our services. It happens when people know that there is somewhere that they can go. For example, when Clodagh Hawe was murdered, we had a 48% spike in the number of calls about that in the following weeks. There is a correlation between awareness that help is available and people seeking it. That says that there is a much bigger need, but we have very poor data to assess this with. We conducted research which showed that one in five women experiences domestic violence at some point in their lives. No other research has shifted that. In 2005, the National Crime Council indicated that severe abuse happened in one of seven cases. We still do not have the measure of this. With the Istanbul Convention, good data are required because until one has good data, one cannot have good solutions.

There is a significant need for research.

Ms Margaret Martin

Yes.

Has there been much research into why this takes place and the underlying conditions that drive someone to carry out this act or for someone to get involved with somebody who may carry out this act?

Ms Margaret Martin

Most of the research has been about quantifying it and the impact on particular groups.

We are just scratching the service.

Ms Margaret Martin

We are. There are different views and some are quite contentious about the reasons. Even getting that basic baseline for the figures is important. One of the most encouraging things is that a significant number of women have come forward and talked about their own experiences.

Ms Margaret Martin

That is a catalyst for a move to talk about things more. That shame threshold has been broken a bit and that will help. The basic thing is that we need good data. We know the data the gardaí were able to provide were not robust enough. The Central Statistics Office has been reluctant to even carry some of those figures. We know that the levels of domestic violence are not being accurately recorded anywhere in the system. The first thing to do is to measure the extent of it.

My questions are completely sensitive to people in this situation. I am just trying to scratch the surface to understand it better.

Ms Margaret Martin

Of course.

I thank Ms Martin.

I thank Ms Martin and Ms Regan. I appreciate them coming before the committee and answering questions so comprehensively. We will suspend to allow time for our next session to commence.

Sitting suspended at 3.18 p.m. and resumed at 3.23 p.m.