On Wednesday (June 24th), I spoke in the Dáil in a debate about measures taken to protect victims of domestic violence during Covid-19.
I welcomed the work done by frontline domestic violence service providers, as well as An Garda Síochána and Department of Justice and Equality, during covid-19.
It is vital that victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence are supported, and that resources are given to service providers as they respond to a post-covid increase in cases.
Roderic O’Gorman (Dublin West):
I will take the time myself and leave a brief opportunity at the end for the Minister to answer a couple of questions. First, I pay tribute to the heroic work of those working on the front line to provide services for women and families fleeing domestic and gender-based violence during the Covid-19 crisis. It is also important to acknowledge the work of the Minister, his Department and especially An Garda Síochána during this period. I welcome the priority response An Garda has rolled out in the context of Operation Faoiseamh and the awareness raising undertaken through the Still Here campaign. Given the fact that so many people were dealing with domestic abuse in the context of isolation, the availability of these supports during recent months was absolutely invaluable.
I also welcome the changes that were made regarding the availability of rent supplement to those fleeing their homes because of domestic and gender-based violence, and the degree of collaboration between the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and various service providers. I engaged with the Minister, Regina Doherty, on this on several occasions. The NGOs in this sector are very pleased with the changes that have been made, particularly the opening and widening of eligibility criteria for rent supplement in these situations and the provision of new and improved referral pathways. Throughout all this, it is essential that we keep in mind those families that have been suffering from domestic and gender-based violence.
We as a society can do much more to tackle the epidemic of gender-based and sexual violence against women. Central to this is reassuring and demonstrating to victims that they are not alone. As well as providing services and support to those who are immediately at risk or fleeing an abusive situation, we need to look at and tackle the root causes of domestic violence. In that regard, I particularly welcome the inclusion in the draft programme for Government the Green Party’s proposal that we introduce a national, preventative strategy as part of our next strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. As well as the day-to-day work of meeting the immediate needs of victims as they present, we have to start looking at why domestic violence is so prevalent in our society and what we can do to stop it happening in the first place.
While the lockdown might be easing, service providers and advocacy groups in this area are noticing a surge in demand for their services and are responding to women and children who have suffered the double trauma of months of lockdown and having been locked down with an abusive partner or other adult during that period. A lot of service providers are seeing situations where women with multiple children are coming forward and they have real concerns about the impact on those children of their spending the long lockdown period with an abusive adult. While the responses in this area from the Garda and the Department during the Covid crisis were strong, there is a general sense within the sector that there is a lack of cross-departmental cohesion in the overall response. This has left services without adequate resources for dealing with practical and emergency issues, particularly in the area of accommodation. Many services have had to work creatively and sometimes very quickly to source resources to keep women safe in their own homes or to find alternative accommodation.
Domestic violence services are now facing into a difficult time. All charities are under financial pressure due to the economic situation and fundraising has become very difficult. Alongside the funding issues, there are the co-ordination issues I spoke about. These problems are arising at a time of acute growth in the need for services. Many of the service providers have come together and are working on their national recovery plan so that they can be ready to respond to the increase in demand for their services. I would like to ask the Minister about the supports to be made available to the sector in the coming weeks and months. Will he be in a position to develop a further set of supports which will, first, ensure that the strong justice-led response to this issue can continue and, second, ensure services are adequately resourced to be able to reconfigure and plan to meet the enormous demands on providers following the Covid crisis and to ensure the needs of women and children fleeing after months of lockdown can be met?
Moving on to another issue, I know that some of the service providers in this sector are concerned about Tusla’s proposal to decentralise its national remit for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services out to the front-line providers. As I noted, the providers have long been critical of the lack of central organisation, accountability and co-ordination for domestic violence services. They argue that this lack of central leadership is having a detrimental effect on their planning and delivery of services. I have engaged with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on this issue. In her response to a parliamentary question I submitted, she stated that Tusla has assured the Department that service provision for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence will not be affected by any organisational reform. Given the key role of the Department of Justice and Equality in responding to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, will the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, detail his understanding of what has been proposed by Tusla? Can he give an assurance that the reforms being undertaken by Tusla will not have adverse effects on the delivery of its services and its overall co-ordination function?
Finally, a number of Deputies spoke about the new offence of coercive control which was introduced at the start of 2019. I was pleased to see in the draft programme for Government a clear commitment to roll out training for gardaí on this offence. In Scotland, the authorities put a particular premium on training police to identify situations where coercive control is taking place. Can the Minister give an indication of how many prosecutions have been successfully undertaken since this offence came onto the Statute Book?