I am the co-ordinator of the OSS, Cork. I am accompanied today by my colleague, Mary St. Leger. On behalf of the OSS, I thank the committee for the invitation to discuss the issue of domestic violence against women, in particular as it is experienced by our service and service users in Cork city and the surrounding area.
Violence against women is one of the most serious forms of gender based violations of human rights. The Council of Europe has as its fundamental concern the safeguarding and protection of such rights. Domestic violence undermines this value, hence it is incumbent upon Europe, its individual states and governments, societies and individuals to take all reasonable efforts to "prevent, investigate and punish all forms of violence against women, including in the family and domestic unit". That quote is from the 2006 blueprint.
Domestic violence occurs across all levels of society and manifests itself across a spectrum from physical assault to psychological abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse and social abuse. It often takes place in secret. A person may experience only one or a combination of the above to a greater or lesser degree at any one time. Indeed, the nature of the abuse may change during the course of a relationship but at its core is an individual's attempt to assert their power and control over another while at no stage taking responsibility for their actions. It places the victim in a position of fear, creates dependency and reduces their self-esteem and ability to make decisions.
The OSS was established in July 2000 in response to the recommendations of the task force report mentioned by Ms St. Leger earlier. It commenced life as a six month pilot project and in the intervening years it has been mainstreamed and has secured a service agreement with the Health Service Executive southern region, which in turn provides core funding via the Southern Regional Committee on Violence Against Women. Since 2005, we have been in receipt of some ancillary funds from the Victims Commission which facilitates the training of volunteers to perform court accompaniment work.
The OSS is ideally located in the centre of Cork city within walking distance of the courts, the refuge, local authorities, social welfare offices, health services, etc., and any agencies to whom we refer clients and from whom we receive referrals. Proximity to public transport maximises access for service users to the OSS and the city centre location adds to the anonymity clients often seek.
We are open on a part-time basis only from Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and are currently seeking to extend the full complement of services to the afternoon. The service is provided free of charge and it is confidential. We operate a walk-in appointment and telephone helpline service.
The service itself is tailored to meet the needs of the individual and will vary from situation to situation, always having as its priority the health and safety of the client which cannot be compromised. We provide both emotional and practical support to victims of domestic violence through supportive listening, where the abuse can be disclosed in a safe and secure environment to experienced and sensitive support staff.
The OSS provides appropriate information whether about legal options, though not advice, financial entitlements or housing routes and will assist with applications where necessary. The OSS provides accompaniment to court, which can be a daunting and intimidating experience for clients, albeit a sometimes important and essential one.
It is a one stop shop but where the information or a service required is not available in-house, an appropriate referral will be made. The OSS actively advocates on behalf of its clients both at an individual and societal level. The end goal is to empower the client to change their circumstances by whatever means.
The OSS does not discriminate on the basis of gender, recognising that men can be victims of domestic abuse although admittedly the number of disclosures by males to the service is far less, as evidenced by the statistics. In 2005, it was about 7% of our clients.
The client groups are not limited to marital relationships nor to co-habiting couples. We have assisted parents with abusive children, teenagers with abusive parents, older adults being abused by adult children and, occasionally, victims of sibling abuse. Furthermore, a number of our clients would be post the relationship but suffering the after-effects or still experiencing violence, often through child access issues and non-payment of maintenance.
Throughout the six and a half years the OSS has been in operation, a number of issues have emerged as concerns through our experience of our clients' experience. Furthermore, through the exchange of information at the Cork interagency group and the southern regional committee meetings we are aware that these experiences are not unique to the OSS and are shared by other agencies and their clients in both the Cork and Kerry regions.
There is no actual crime of domestic violence. The onus is on the victim to obtain the protection of the State. For those victims who report the abuse, the response from authorities has on occasion been less than positive. Furthermore, those clients who take the legal measures necessary to secure their safety have found the experience has sometimes been disappointing and, indeed, this would appear to be worsening. In Cork in 2005, 78 barring orders were granted, down from 103 in 2004, and 44 safety orders were granted, a reduction of 23 from the previous year. There is also a dangerous delay between application and hearing, from two to three months in Cork city, in which the abuse often intensifies and the strain on women becomes intolerable. Sanctions following the reported breach of an order have also not been consistent.
Most glaring is the lack of legal protection for persons who continue to be abused, who either have never co-habited or who are post a co-habiting relationship and beyond the time criteria to apply for either safety or barring orders. This situation is greatly compounded when the couple have a child or children in common, due to the ongoing contact and communication that results.
There is a need for counselling services for children specific to domestic violence. One of the greatest challenges facing us is the lack of such services for children, who certainly suffer emotionally, psychologically, socially and educationally as a result of living in a home with domestic abuse. In 2005, a total of 454 children came in contact with the services of the local refuge and the HSE southern region with regard to issues of domestic violence.
There is a need for supervised access facilities. Unfortunately, it is the experience of many of our clients that their safety is compromised during child access when they might be subject to verbal abuse, not to mention the financial abuse applied and the difficulties that arise when child maintenance is not honoured. This experience can be exacerbated when the child is questioned and manipulated by the abusive partner.
An increase in the amount of transitional housing and emergency spaces is required. The task force report recommended an increase in "the availability of second stage housing". There is a decided lack of such housing and refuge spaces available in Cork city and its surrounds. Sofia Housing provides transitional homes in the form of 11 family apartments and two single ones, while the local and only refuge, Cuanlee, has units to house a mere six families in an emergency. Private rented accommodation appears to be the only option available to OSS clients and this requires registering on the housing list and availing of rent allowance from community welfare officers. Unfortunately, the financial ceiling appears not to have kept abreast with inflation and actual cost of rents, making the locating of suitable accommodation in Cork an onerous task on already stressed individuals and, indeed, homelessness a stark possibility.
More recently, as with all services across the country, our client base has broadened to include a larger non-national community. This has brought with it the attendant challenges of ethnic difference and language barriers, where options presented may be culturally unacceptable and interpreters a financial burden that may not even be feasible for the organisation's budget. In Cork, the average costs for interpretation per hour are approximately €60. There is also a lack of comprehension of, or fear of exercising, the person's rights.
The habitual residence criterion greatly compromises those non-nationals who are not habitually resident in Ireland for two years. Preventing a person's access to financial assistance in the form of, for example, rent allowance or supplementary welfare allowance reduces their options for escape and may trap them in a violent situation. Some of our clients have resisted applying for orders due to their financial dependence on their spouse and fear that barring them will place them in financial jeopardy.
While our wish list is long, the OSS would recommend the following main points for consideration. The OSS, Cork, seeks an increase in funding to extend the full complement of services to the afternoon to meet demand, to employ additional support workers to cover the cost of interpretation and to promote a publicity and information drive. There is a paucity of services available to clients outside office hours and at weekends and we wish to meet that challenge.
Domestic violence must be criminalised and the Garda needs a more proactive policy and practice. Expecting an already vulnerable person to take responsibility for securing their own legal protection is inappropriate, dangerous and unrealistic. A reduction in the waiting time between application and hearing is essential to encourage women to take action in the first instance.
The Domestic Violence Act requires amendment to offer protection to non-cohabiting persons who currently present as one of the groups most at risk, particularly when there are children in common. Training for the Judiciary and adjunct agencies is vital if a standard of service is to be made available and the proper sanctions put in place and adhered to. This is a fundamental of good practice and it is one of the recommendations in the task force report. The task force also proposed the establishment of regional family courts, which would lend itself to maintenance of standards, shorter waiting lists and consistency of sanctions.
Services for children are imperative. The blueprint of the Council of Europe campaign states that domestic violence damages not only women but also future generations. The cost to society and its future will be immeasurable if we do not protect the next generation. A counselling service for children, specific to domestic violence, needs to be established to increase the options available to women who attend the OSS in helping their children recover from the effects of domestic abuse. An increase in the availability of transitional and emergency housing is required, both in Cork and nationwide, if we are to improve women's options of escape and avoid either homelessness or the trapping of families within abusive environments.
The changing face of Irish society has created a vulnerable population group compromised by cultural, linguistic and financial difficulties. As a first step, a relaxation of the habitual residence criteria is necessary where domestic violence has been demonstrated as the mitigating factor for people seeking State assistance.
The OSS wishes to acknowledge the many positive changes that have taken place in the past ten years. As the catchphrase states, however, there is "A lot done, more to do". A concerted and joint effort would help to reduce and aim to eliminate domestic violence against women. In the long term this would benefit the State by reducing pressure on the judicial and health systems and increasing productivity through a healthy and happy workforce.
The European Council has called for "men's active participation to combat violence against women". In light of this, it is wonderful to see such an initiative and to see so many men present.
I thank the joint committee for the invitation to make a presentation and we wish it well in its work.