The Minister is to be complimented on his sensitive response to the representations that have been made to him by the many voluntary women's groups to provide adequate protection for the victims of family violence. As anyone who has had any dealings with these groups knows, they have considered that the time limit for barring orders of three months was totally inadequate.
The Minister first proposed to extend barring orders by the insertion of an appropriate section in the Courts Bill, recently debated in the House, but he rightly decided that the urgency and importance of the matter deserved a separate debate. This response by the Minister to this very real need will be welcomed. Family violence runs the whole gamut — from an occasional Saturday night black eye to aggravated sexual assault. In so far as this Bill is lacking in any one thing, it is that it does not provide that the subject of a barring order be referred to marriage counselling, to psychiatric treatment, or to psycho-sexual counselling for help.
There are many married couples bringing up families today whose marriages are basically sound but whose social and economic environments leave a lot to be desired. They are struggling, many of them in quiet desperation, unable to cope with social deprivation, unemployment and lack of housing facilities. Expressions of violence in situations like this are frequently a cry for help and one to which a caring community should respond. There is usually a long history of distress, economic or otherwise, in such cases.
One must also be concerned at the number of young people conditioned by the media to over-emphasise the importance of certain aspects of the marital relationship who find themselves unprepared for the daily responsibilities of marriage and express their sense of inadequacy in violent behaviour. Violence in marriage may become part of a continuing pattern. Young people become accustomed to their parents' violence and do not regard it as abnormal and we need to be able to categorise violence if we are to treat the social problem.
At the same time we have the duty to protect the victims of such violence in a realistic way so that they can freely and safely apply for and obtain a barring order. Section 3 of the Bill provides for a protection order designed to protect the members of the family during the period when the application for a barring order is awaiting hearing, a period when the family is most vulnerable to threats and pressure from one source or another. Section 7 confers on a member of the Garda the power to arrest without warrant anyone in breach of a barring order or a protection order and section 8 increases the penalties for breaches of these orders while on bail.
These three provisions in the Bill before the House should serve to make the law as foolproof as it can be for the battered wife who seeks release. The enlargement of the jurisdication under which barring orders are made will make it easier to obtain access to the court, but when we are talking about protection we should be concerned also to protect the rights of the husband who because of a domestic squabble may find himself without a roof over his head. The ordinary husband who gets married, buys the house and proceeds to settle down and raise a family is not a wife-beater nor does he become a wife-beater overnight and he may regard this Bill as a somewhat draconian measure. It is a Bill designed to give protection to a family in crisis but it should be remembered that a mischievous claim for a barring order would only serve to bring the law into disrepute.
While the measures contained in the Bill should help the battered wife to seek and obtain the relief she needs, we still have the problem of children at risk. The report of the Women's Aid organisation shows the horrific effect of family violence on children who are harmed physically and psychologically and who, saddest of all, grow to accept such violence as part of the normal pattern of family life and continue it in their own marriages, thus closing the vicious circle. Although Women's Aid have looked after a total of some 15,000 children in their refuge since it opened in Dublin in 1974, their report emphasises that many women are reluctant to claim the relief of the law because of their financial dependence upon their husbands and so their children are the prime victims of violence in the family.
In particular, I would be concerned about the battered baby syndrome and here one would hope for a concerted approach by various Departments concerned with the care of children, in particular the Departments of Health and Justice. There is a danger where responsibility is divided that it would be passed from one Department to the other. One sees, for example, that illegitimate children who are eligible for adoption come under the aegis of the Department of Justice while legitimate children who may not be adopted and may only be offered for fostering come under the care of the Department of Health. Our Constitution is committed to the equal cherishing of all children but looking at the law it seems that children brought up in a normal family environment are more equally cherished than those who are not.
While the Women's Aid organisation have mentioned the very large number of 15,000 children and 3,500 women who have applied to them for protection, these numbers are only the tip of the iceberg because many women do not seek the relief of the law. They do not do so because of financial dependence, because they fear that there is a social stigma attached to family violence, because if they live in a rural community there is nowhere they can go for protection. Many of them do not wish to admit that their marriages have failed. We really have no adequate statistics on the number of people who are suffering in this way. I would repeat the comment I made on the Second Stage of the Courts Bill that it is a very sad commentary on the way we interpret the constitutional commitment to the needs of the family that so many of the Bills going through the House, including this one, are concerned with the need to protect the individual members of the family from one another.
The Minister's response to the problem is a very sensitive one and let us hope it will be effective. I would hope for an equally sensitive response to the present urgent needs of the Women's Aid organisation who have endeavoured over the years to provide a place of refuge for such women and their children. It would be a pity if their work were to come to a full stop because of public indifference and lack of funds.