Combating Sexual, Domestic and Gender-Based Violence: Statements (Resumed)

I welcome the Minister to the House.

During the course of the pandemic, the circumstances shone a light on domestic violence and its prevalence in our community. I am proud that throughout the pandemic, our Government has responded extremely well and promptly provided increased funding to combat this issue.

I lament that the conversation needed to happen at all. It is pretty horrific that anyone would be frightened, particularly within an intimate relationship and within the confines of their own home. However, I am glad that the issue of domestic violence is now out in the open, that it can be discussed openly, that it is high up on all of our political agendas and that we have cross-party agreement on it. It has been broken as a taboo subject. The stereotyping of victims and perpetrators has been broken insofar as domestic violence is across all sectors of society. There is no particular profile that signals someone is either a perpetrator or a victim. From that point of view, that is all good and perhaps will create a context and encourage victims to come forward. I would encourage that.

The report, Tracking the Shadow Pandemic - The Story from March to August 2020, published by Safe Ireland, has some stark figures. I will boringly read some of them into the record of the House because we need to pause and take them on board. In a six-month period we had 3,450 women and 589 children contact the domestic violence services for the very first time. On average, we had 1,970 women and 411 children receive support every month. Nearly 34,000 helpline calls were answered, which is an average of 184 calls per day. On average, 191 women and 288 children were living in domestic violence accommodation each month. Quite frighteningly, 1,351 requests for refuge could not be met due to a lack of space. The consequences of that lack of space was quite frightening and horrific for them.

The services have worked tirelessly and ceaselessly to find accommodation within the community. The numbers looking for support increased again month on month. July and August were the busiest months, which is surprising because even though circumstances were a little bit more relieved for all of our living and moving around, the figures still increased. The services have been extraordinary throughout the pandemic in that they adapted to the lockdown overnight. The statistics on that are that 33,624 phone support sessions were held, which is extraordinary. There were 575 video support sessions, 8,300 in-person support sessions, 2,000 helpline emails, 3,500 texts and more than 1,000 online chat messages. That focuses on women and children. However, I am always very mindful of men who are in domestic violence situations. Over the course of the numbers of years I have worked and been around this area, I have been very mindful of the particular vulnerabilities and difficulties of men in domestic violence situations. I am mindful also that we do not have the figures for the second lockdown and how difficult that must have been.

As we approach Christmas every year, we run campaigns asking people to contact services and pointing out there are supports in place for people experiencing domestic violence because while on the one hand we are talking about families getting together for Christmas and everything that goes with that, at the same time we are also mindful of the violence that accompanies Christmas and the horror that is in some homes.

I worked as a counselling psychologist for a number of years before coming the Bar and counselled both victims and perpetrators. I had one incident in a counselling room in a reflective counselling session where, appropriately within the context, I needed to challenge a particular matter and he instantly lost it. I got the tiniest insight into how frightening it must be. In that moment I was locked into a counselling room but that was not my husband, partner, the father of my children or the home I was obliged to live in. I can only imagine and shudder to think of what it must be like for people coming up to Christmas.

It is in that context that I want to raise with the Minister an organisation called Saoirse.

Its acting CEO is my party colleague and a great champion of women's rights, Ellen O'Malley Dunlop. Saoirse is an excellent service providing community support and prevention services. It works in a geographic area from west Wicklow all the way through to Dublin 12. It has two short-term refuge accommodation centres for women and children suffering abuse and at the moment they are full to capacity. They have 11 women and 17 children in residence. Saoirse runs a 24-hour helpline and its refuge is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It has day caller services, does court accompaniment and has therapeutic rooms. It provides the most amazing service. I commend it as a service whose work I am particularly familiar with. I commend it on the hard work it has done.

The Minister lobbied for and secured the increased funding. We just need clarification for all the services under Safe Ireland. How will that funding be allocated? The likes of Saoirse are looking for clarification on how the increased lot of funding that has gone to Tusla will be allocated to all these organisations. I would really appreciate clarification on that.

I will do all I can to keep my contribution within the six minutes allocated. I welcome the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and thank him for coming before the House. This is a really important issue. All the issues we talk about in this House are important, but the issue of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and abuse is so insidious and corrosive. When I stop to think about the individuals affected, the victims, I think they must be in the loneliest place in the world. They can be in a busy shop or out and about, but how they must feel and how they must get through every day. It is therefore really important that this House discusses the issue at length.

Senator Seery Kearney talked about the recent report published by Safe Ireland. It compiled statistics from the first six months of the Covid-19 lockdown. The report highlights the enormous increase in the incidence of domestic violence, with more than 4,000 women and children referred. They were not repeat referrals; they were new referrals over that period. There were 34,000 calls to helplines in the same period. That is almost 200 calls every single day. I think Senator Seery Kearney mentioned the fact that there were more than 1,300 requests for accommodation, but how many were not responded to?

The DPP has said there has been an 87% increase in the number of files relating to domestic violence referred to her office. In my constituency, Dublin Central, the chief superintendent for DMR North reported at our most recent joint policing committee a 100% increase in the number of reports of domestic violence. Women's Aid has been running a campaign to reach out to women who are vulnerable, who are victims and who are alone. It is really depressing. Women's Aid has issued statistics that indicate that one in five young women in Ireland has suffered intimate relationship abuse, one in six young women in Ireland has suffered coercive control, and 51% of young women affected experienced that abuse when they were less than 18 years of age. These are young women whose fundamental sense of themselves and their self-confidence is being attacked. One in two of these young women who have been abused experienced the abuse online. That is on their phones, which are in their pockets and with them all the time. That is insidious and invasive.

Abuse takes many forms, including physical, psychological, emotional and coercive.

For many people their phone is their lifeline. It is how they contact the rest of their network. It is how they are contacted for work and how they conduct their daily life. However, abusers are using it to insidiously control and destroy other people's lives.

We had the big media story about the 140,000 intimate images released online. I cannot imagine what the poor victims went through and what it did to their sense of self. That is a real invasion and abuse. It is great that the Minister is here to talk about it. The Government has an important role to play and it is taking some actions. All the NGOs and those who give of their time voluntarily are to be applauded and supported. While I know the Government has allocated more than €6 million in the budget to tackle domestic abuse and support victims, Safe Ireland still has questions over what funding it will be able to access. Arising from this debate, I would like it to have clarity on the funding it will get. I understand the funding will come from both the Department of Justice and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.

It is important that other commitments in the programme for Government, including a commitment to a third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, are delivered quickly. We need to plan for the refuge space. There have been 1,300 requests for accommodation but seven requests every day could not be met. That means seven distressed individuals were left in a really threatening situation. I welcome that the Government has a plan for additional refuge space. I would like to know the timeframe for delivering that.

I ask the Minister in his reply to speak about the commitment for paid leave and social protection for victims of domestic abuse. We need to update the Sex Offenders Act 2001. If necessary to help advance it, it could be initiated in the Seanad. I welcome the Government's commitment to criminalise image-based sexual abuse and I hope the legislation will be introduced quickly. I would like to see the Government implement the recommendations of the O'Malley report.

While I know it is not directly in the Minister's remit, I ask him in his capacity as a member of Government to take this up with the Minister for Health. The Rotunda Hospital in Parnell Square is known as the world's oldest and largest maternity hospital. It also has a sexual trauma unit. It is desperately overcrowded and its built facilities need upgrading. It has an outstanding request and needs about €2.5 million next year to upgrade the facilities on the west side of the campus. I would appreciate if the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth could speak to the Minister for Health on the issue. I have already made representations and it would be important if we could progress it.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to discuss this important issue. We have had a number of statements on the issue. I will try not to repeat what my colleagues have said and focus on an area that has not been addressed adequately for a number of years, which is the issue of housing and accommodation for victims of domestic violence. Refuge spaces are wholly inadequate, but a few small changes in local authority systems could make an enormous difference. A woman who owns a house along with her husband or partner and is a victim of domestic violence is considered to be adequately housed because she has a share in that house.

Getting access to a local authority housing list is very difficult in that situation. Another issue is that people may not want to live in the same administrative area as their abuser and partner. It is very difficult to switch between local authority lists. Somebody in Dublin might want to move back to his or her family in Sligo. Switching between those lists is very difficult. If one has been on a local authority housing list for seven, ten or 12 years, one will lose one's place if one switches lists. The issues keeping people in those situations are financial and emotional. That sense of safety and home is also involved. One might feel that one is safer if one has a roof over one's head, even if one is not. That has been brought into focus by this issue.

I also ask the Minister to address the issue of going after damages. One of my childhood friends was a victim of very serious domestic violence at the hands of a man with whom she had previously been in a relationship. I am speaking about her here as she has been very vocal publicly about the matter. She came home one Christmas and he was waiting for her. He had jumped in a taxi. He broke her face in two places. She thought she was not going to survive the assault. This woman's name is Jessica Bowes. One of the things she has done with her barrister is to bring this man through the courts to try to get damages. Despite the fact that he owns two houses, she does not have access to that money. She has three children, two of which she had with that man, but the courts system has failed her on both a criminal and civil level.

Will the Minister, in conjunction with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, give consideration to a domestic violence housing strategy? Senator Fitzpatrick and I were on Dublin City Council when Councillor Noeleen Reilly brought together a working group on that issue. I had initially tried to do so in 2009 but we hit too many barriers in our attempts to co-ordinate local authorities across the country. This is a real long-term need for people who are fleeing such situations. We ask that people be in immediate crisis rather than addressing their long-term needs, including housing needs, thereby keeping them in homes that are not safe.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House and for his personal commitment to addressing these issues. I agree very strongly with Senator Moynihan that there are quite a number of issues in respect of housing which have not been fully teased out during debates on this matter. These issues do not affect only those on council housing lists. Situations often arise in which the relationship between a couple that has a mortgage breaks down, possibly as a result of abuse, which may be physical but may also be emotional. The difficulty is that when the parties separate and one goes to the local authority to seek a place on the housing list, he or she is considered to have income coming from the sale of the house. The circumstances involved can be very difficult. While, in many ways, local authorities can try to be as sympathetic as possible, part of the difficulty is that such people are caught by the rules in respect of income limits and so on. I echo many of the concerns Senator Moynihan raised in respect of the housing issue.

The legislation with regard to online harassment is moving forward. Cyberbullying is often tied to some of the challenges we are discussing today. I strongly support continued efforts to implement Coco's law. We should try to keep that name in some way built into that legislation.

A number of Senators, including my colleague, Senator Fitzpatrick, have raised the issue of image-based sexual abuse. It is horrific that something so intimate could be shared widely. I was struck by the story of Róisín Nic Lochlainn, a student at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She spoke with Joe Duffy on "Liveline", as the Minister might recall, about her experience of being filmed in an intimate situation when she was 17 and the trauma the sharing of this video caused her.

As Senator Fitzpatrick said, I think of the impact something like that has at any age, but in particular that age. As legislators, we often speak in a very abstract way. We talk about the numbers and those impacted, but let us try to imagine ourselves at that age and the impact that it has, in particular now that there is so much pressure to be liked by one's peers, especially on social media. To be honest, we can all imagine how frightening it would be if social media were around when we did things in our teens and 20s. We must look at it that way, and to allow children and young people to be children and young people safely. That must be at the heart of what we do.

I wish to raise one final issue which has not been referred to, that is, the question of parental alienation. Relationships can break down, but it becomes a problem when children are weaponised. I refer to the psychological manipulation of a child by one or other parent. This can sometimes take very subtle forms. I appreciate that there are enormous legal difficulties proving it. There is an impact on the child and there is also an impact on the relationship of the mother or father with the child. We need to look at some way to have regard in both the civil and criminal legislation to situations whereby concerted efforts are made to alienate children by one parent against the other.

I thank all Senators for their contributions today. This debate was adjourned two weeks ago and the fact that we had to extend the time shows the commitment of the Upper House to combatting domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. I do not believe I am being party political in saying that because that has been a genuine feeling across the House. Given the difference in gender representation between the Upper and Lower Houses, it is appropriate to mention that with 40% women in this House it is a topic that is very important to us. I thank the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, for coming to the House today and invite him to make a statement.

I am grateful to you, Acting Chairman, and to all the Members of the Seanad for facilitating this debate. As Senators are aware, there was a similar debate in the Dáil a couple of weeks ago at which I spoke. It is great to see the need to extend the time for this debate because of the degree of interest among Senators. No matter what our political differences may be, I think we all agree that domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is a scourge that must be eliminated from society, and that those who have been the victims of this sort of violence deserve our compassion and support.

We had several very powerful contributions from Senators today, reflecting their own engagement with constituents and friends on the issue. I thank them for sharing those stories. It is important to note that the programme for Government called out the fact that we have an epidemic of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in this country. It did not shy away from the reality that has been shied away from for too long. Since taking on this role, I met with many stakeholders and front-line services. I have expressed my own commitment to what we can do in that regard. It has been instructive for me to meet with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and Women's Aid. I have not met with Saoirse yet, but I know the work it does and I am happy to meet with it. Reference was made to men who are victims of violence. Early in the new year I will meet with Men's Aid as well. I am in regular contact with Safe Ireland as a lead organisation and I have a strong relationship with it.

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to launch the 2019 report for Sonas. It is another significant NGO in this area, which runs the refuge at the other end of Blanchardstown village where I live. I had a very important conversation with the staff there. We focused on the issues raised by Senator Moynihan about accommodation and housing. I also had an opportunity to sit down with a client for about half and hour and she took me through her journey of the mainly coercive control at home to her decision to leave, to engagement with the emergency services, the front-line services and the courts.

It was instructive to be taken slowly through her entire experience with just two of us in the room, and to get an insight into the very real barriers that exist for victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence trying to leave their particular circumstances.

As Senators will be aware, Tusla falls within the remit of my Department, and it has a statutory responsibility for the care and protection of victims of domestic violence. As part of its work, Tusla supports some 60 organisations nationwide and operates a range of services. In 2020, my Department provided €25.3 million to Tusla for services, and an additional €2 million in Covid contingency funds. This year I was delighted to be able to announce a significant increase in that, so in 2021, there will be €28 million in core funding available, which constitutes an increase of €2.7 million, and an additional €2 million in Covid contingency funding will also be available. Therefore, in 2021, €30 million will be provided to support these services, which is an increase of €4.7 million on the original 2020 figure, and that is significant. Looking at what was spent on domestic violence back in 2016, which is only four years ago, we will be doubling that spend in 2021, and that is important.

As regards additional accommodation, two new refuges have been opened this year, one in south Dublin and one in Galway, and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage provided the capital funding to support the opening of these refuges, with the day-to-day services being provided by Tusla. Tusla funds a range of specialist counselling services across the country, the 16 rape crisis centres nationwide, and it has expanded its range of services and now provides outreach services for domestic violence victims who may not have a service local to them. Tusla also supports services for children who have also been affected by domestic, sexual and gender-based violence through the provision of childcare supports in refuges across the country and the expansion of therapeutic support programmes. I think particular reference should be made to the Barnahus, Onehouse Galway pilot project which has a child-centred approach, and provides health, medical, therapeutic and policing services for children and young people in cases of suspected sexual abuse. It is a model of good practice that we are supporting. This pilot programme is in operation in Galway at the moment but we are looking to expand the services to Cork and Dublin. The experience learned from the pilot will be used to inform future planning and service design, and a national agency steering group will be established as a priority to move the project forward.

Domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is a multifaceted problem and many arms of the State are required to work together effectively to address it. Therefore, it is not just an issue for my Department and Tusla; rather, it is a cross-Government and cross-State issue. That is why one of the key points we included in the programme for Government was the need for an audit of how responsibility for policy and services is actually aligned, because as a number of people have mentioned, including Senator Moynihan, there are gaps and there are many bodies trying to complete bits and pieces of the puzzle of work. This is particularly true in respect of housing, which is something that we have discussed with Sonas. There is the issue that while my Department funds the day-to-day running of refuges, the capital comes from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and from local authorities, which requires the local authorities to be "up for it", so to speak, and for the Department of housing to be aligned. There are many players in this area, and without implying that there are bad intentions at play, the multiplicity of players causes difficulties and delays. We are trying to tackle this issue through the audit, so we can determine who does what, and who actually should be doing what. That audit is currently out for tender, and we hope that we are in a position to bring forward the results of the audit and implement them early next year. I am working closely with the Minister for Justice on the project. Likewise, Tusla, which is within my Department, is looking at the review of accommodation at the moment, and that is particularly important, because we are all aware of the lack of accommodation across the country. We must highlight that issue, not on an anecdotal basis, but on the basis of detailed study and a needs analysis being completed countrywide.

The result of that Tusla accommodation review will be available in April next year. I will be acting on that, as will other Departments.

All Departments and agencies will play a role in Supporting a Victim's Journey. This is a plan to help victims and vulnerable witnesses in sexual violence cases, which arose from the O'Malley report published earlier this year. This plan is led by the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and the Department of Justice, but it includes commitments from across Government agencies and Departments. One of the commitments that arose is for my Department and Tusla to work with the Department of Justice and the Department of Health to complete a mapping exercise, which is linked into the nature of the spread and the level of services that may be encompassed by the implementation plan. Stakeholders within the sector will be consulted. This process should get under way shortly. I look forward to seeing the outcome of this work across Government. We know that Government is stronger when we are working together to address this particular issue.

As alluded to earlier, this evening in the Dáil we will debate a Private Members' Bill from Sinn Féin on leave entitlement for victims of domestic violence. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this as it is in line with the commitment contained within the programme for Government. I look forward to being able to make announcements on behalf of the Government. We discussed at Cabinet today the steps towards the provision of paid leave for domestic violence survivors. That will be an important step.

I am aware of the publicity in recent weeks regarding reported increases in the incidence of domestic violence during the pandemic. This is coming through all sources including the Garda, the Courts Service, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the front-line services in the NGO community.

We have discussed here the issues that are part of a continuum of violence where the lives of others are devalued and belittled by their abuser. Whether this is done by emotional, physical or sexual abuse, and whether it is done in person or online, none of it is acceptable. It is important that we continue to learn about the range of offences that take can place and, crucially, their impact. I have engaged with Tusla, the domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services, and with representative bodies since I have started in this office, and I will continue to do so.

The Government is committed to doing all it can to tackle the problem of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. It affects all of society. We know of the consequences it can have for survivors. We know it is not acceptable anymore. The programme for Government sets out clear actions that are now being taken. Again, it is a matter for all of us working together to end the scourge of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in our society.

I thank the Minister. It is clear that we will have many opportunities over the coming months to discuss this matter again and more fully. I thank the Minister for coming to the House today.

Sitting suspended at 3.24 p.m. and resumed at 4.15 p.m.