Trevor Laffan: Lockdown can be a nightmare for spouses living with abuse

What might appear to be domestic bliss to a casual observer can sometimes be completely different, so says Trevor Laffan in his weekly column
Trevor Laffan: Lockdown can be a nightmare for spouses living with abuse

IN SHADOW OF VIOLENCE: The United Nations has urged governments to include protection of women in their pandemic responses

MY 62 years on this planet have taught me that relationships within families can often be complicated.

Not everyone is living the dream. In the words of the Charlie Rich song, ‘No-one knows what goes on behind closed doors’.

What might appear to be domestic bliss to a casual observer can sometimes be completely different.

There is an advertising campaign underway currently and it encourages abuse victims to seek help. There is a good reason for that.

According to the United Nations, reports of domestic violence have surged globally in the wake of massive lockdowns imposed to contain the spread of Covid-19. So much so that the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has urged governments to include the protection of women in their response to the pandemic.

Thankfully, that’s an alien world to most of us, but violence is a factor in many relationships and there are victims suffering in silence while working hard to hide the truth from family and friends. Creating cover stories for the black eye or the swollen lip.

It’s not always about physical violence either though, but it is always about control. It is sinister in whatever shape it comes.

We occasionally hear details of cases when they come before the courts and get an insight into the physical and mental torture that can be inflicted on victims.

We heard recently about the first successful prosecution for coercive control in this country, which resulted in the accused being sent to prison.

The culprit in that case pleaded guilty to bombarding his girlfriend with 5,757 phone calls over a three-month period. He admitted being abusive to his partner, including exercising coercive control, harassment and making threats to damage property.

He became so obsessed with her that he forced her to take her phone everywhere with her, so he could keep track of her. He even called her on Facetime and made her scan her location, to prove she was exactly where she said she was.

On one occasion, he entered the pub where she was socialising and pulled her out of the premises by the collar of her jumper and gave her a severe beating, including several punches to the head. He also burnt her clothes and broke her hair straighteners to prevent her from going out. He threatened to kill her too.

This case was the first prosecution for this offence that came into law a year ago.

Coercive control is the way an abusive person gains and maintains power and control over another person by subjecting them to psychological, physical, sexual, emotional or financial abuse, regardless of gender or sexuality.

It is a deeply dangerous and personal crime against the person, usually committed over a prolonged period.

The court heard that the mother of three was fearful for her safety. In one phone call, the offender was heard screaming at his partner: “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you stone dead. I’ll cut your throat out. I’ll get you. Mark my words, I’ll get you tomorrow night.”

It’s a disturbing story, but unfortunately, it’s not unusual in the world of domestic violence.

Twenty years ago, I was approached by a lady who was concerned about a family member. She told me her sister was living in fear of her husband and she was looking for some advice. I arranged for the lady concerned to meet me in the garda station and she told me her story, which was quite shocking.

She had been living in a bad situation for years, but this was the first time she had spoken about it to somebody other than her family. She was desperate. This guy was very controlling, and she had absolutely no life of her own. He was a bully and in complete control of her physically and mentally.

She was only allowed out of the house for brief periods to do some shopping and if she failed to return on time, she was punished.

She had no friends of her own and only socialised when they were out together. Even then, she had to be careful who she spoke to because he could get jealous without any reason and that would cause problems for her later.

We spoke for a long time and the account of her circumstances was hard to digest.

We met a second time in the station, and it was obvious that she was in a distressed state. She told me that her tormentor had followed her when he discovered she was going to the garda station.

He had parked his car across the road to intimidate his wife, so I went out and introduced myself. I advised him that I was aware of the situation and told him his wife would be seeking the protection of the court.

I also suggested that in the meantime, it would be in his interest not to interfere with her again as the judge would be informed of every incident. I also advised him, in layman’s language, that he would clearly understand, to leave the area.

I accompanied her to the court while she got her Barring Order. It wasn’t contested because he failed to show up. That was no surprise because abusers are often weak individuals who don’t like being called out. I never saw him again.

She went on to have the life she deserved and was finally able to leave the house to meet family and friends without fearing the consequences.

I’m telling this story to illustrate that there is a way out. There is protection for victims once they find the courage to take the first step.

This new piece of legislation adds extra protection, and hopefully it will encourage others to come forward in the future.

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