Helping the victims of domestic abuse

Helping the victims of domestic abuse

20 January 2021

“CHILDREN are the smallest victims of domestic abuse and violence,” says senior safeguarding manager Sheila Simons, chair of the South Eastern Domestic and Sexual Violence Partnership (SED&SVP) which is based in the Knocknashinna Family Centre in Downpatrick.

“There’s so much research around now to say children are real victims, not just bystanders looking on. They experience the trauma of witnessing, hearing and seeing all that goes on. Sometimes children would be used in the abuse and encouraged to speak to Mummy very negatively, copying various behaviours.

“Sometimes they will go to the defence of one parent and suffer as a result or deliberately abused as part of a way of controlling the mother as well.”

Ms Simons speaks in stark terms about a serious issue which is going on in homes throughout East Down and beyond.

She is one of a host of people working across various disciplines in the Southern Eastern trust which deal with the aftermath of domestic and sexual abuse and violence in the home.

Her words are even more important as the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceeding Bill is set to become law once passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It includes the creation of a new domestic abuse offence, allowing for heavier sentences where children are involved, and stiffening penalties for any wrongdoing where domestic abuse is associated with it. It also recognises for the first time that not all domestic abuse is physical.

While Ms Simons works with abused parents, mainly women, she has a special focus on helping children embroiled in violent and unstable homes as a senior manager in Child Protection Services.

“There is research regional, nationally and internationally to say that women are mainly the targets of violence by men. Generally we know that one in four women will suffer domestic violence in their lifetime,” said Sheila. “We do know that men suffer violence at the hands of women but we know from the Men’s Advisory Service in Northern Ireland that 85% of perpetrators of violence against males were males, whether it’s a father or son or a same sex relationship.”

She works closely with Patricia McMurray, co-ordinator of the SED&SVP, as one of the many disciplines within the South Eastern Trust which are involved in the aftermath of a domestic abuse and violence incident.

Along with Women’s Aid Northern Ireland, last November the partnership launched guidelines for the media, The Responsible Reporting Matters framework, concerning coverage of domestic violence incidents.

The guidelines are designed to ensure responsible reporting of domestic violence, as in the reporting of suicide as media reports on domestic violence and abuse influences how society responds to it as a criminal act, and how it treats those who fall victim to it.

The deion of Cavan father Alan Hawe as a “pillar of the community” — after he killed his wife Clodagh and three children in a murder-suicide in 2016 — sparked off the need for such guidelines.

Apart from physical violence, Patricia and Sheila are well aware of the prevalence of coercive control in the home, where one person controls everything about their victim, is isolated from family and friends, from the family finances, access to social media, controlling the clothes they wear.

It is soon to be recognised in law as an offence in recognition of the damage that psychological control and abuse can have on someone.

“We have only begun to understand coercive control over the last few years, where victims are effectively trapped in their own  homes. It’s is like a drip, drip, drip effect and sometimes people are trapped before they realise,” explained Sheila.

“There are several barriers for people not coming forward to report it, either they don’t recognise it, or terrified of the consequences if they disclose. But there is also a problem with rural areas where people are very private about their own personal affairs.

“There are attitudes in that you married sickness and in health, you made your own bed, now lie in it, these cultural and religious attitudes still prevail which does not make it easy for the person to leave.”

Patricia McMurray has been working in the SED&SVP since it first started over ten years ago and works with similar partnerships throughout Northern Ireland as well as other statutory and voluntary agencies.

She said: “Tackling domestic violence and abuse is a big agenda, particularly in the Trust with so many staff. For instance, there would be maternity services, disability services and child protection services, and more, all come in contact with incidence of abuse. Our work has grown so much over the years.

“We do a lot of awareness events and training and quite often we find we find that after such events, women will come forward to find out more, even if it is on behalf of someone else.”

A 24-hour Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline is available to anyone who has concerns about domestic or sexual abuse, now or in the past, on 0808 802 1414.

To contact police, call the non-emergency ‘101’ number or call ‘999’ in an emergency. There is a Silent Solutions Service which enables a 999 caller who is too scared to make a noise, or speak, to press 55 when prompted.