AS a young social worker, Maria Leahy dealt with the case of a pregnant woman in pyjamas who had escaped through the window of her home. She was, it emerged, routinely locked into the house by her extremely controlling partner each morning before he went to work.
“It was my first real case of domestic violence,” recalls Maria, now Acting Manager of Social Work Services at Cork University Hospital (CUH) and Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH), who recalls the case which she handled as a young social worker in the West of Ireland.
“She was locked into her bedroom when her partner went to work and the phone was disconnected so nobody could contact her.
“When he gave her money to buy food, every penny had to be accounted for,” she says, adding that while the man brought the mother-to-be to some of her crucial ante-natal appointments, she missed others.
“She eventually escaped in her pyjamas and got to a neighbour’s house,” says Maria, adding that the woman was in her thirties, was educated, affluent and had family in the locality.
“However, she had been seeing less and less of them as her partner spoke very negatively about how her family saw her.
“That was my first experience of the real impact of extreme controlling behaviour,” recalls Maria, who adds that by the time the woman escaped, her pregnancy was very advanced.
The team she heads up at CUH and CUMH has, over the years, experienced cases which she says are similar to this extreme example of coercive control and domestic violence.
“There needs to be more public awareness of the extent of and the impact of domestic violence against pregnant women.
“As someone who has worked in this area for many years, I believe a coordinated national policy across all maternity hospitals, for the routine screening of pregnant women for domestic violence, would help to create more awareness of the problem both in women themselves and within the community generally.”
Maria has been a social worker for almost 20 years across maternity hospitals and in the community and has worked in Cork since 2016.
Tomorrow, Thursday, February 27, the CUMH Domestic Violence Biennial Conference takes place in the main auditorium of CUH.
The objective of the morning conference, which is organised by the CUMH Domestic Violence Committee — is to heighten awareness of domestic violence amongst staff such as public health nurses, social workers, voluntary organisations working in the sector, medical, nursing and health and social care professionals based in CUH and CUMH.
Guest speakers include Sarah Benson, CEO, Women’s Aid, and Margo Noonan, Advanced Nurse Practitioner attached to the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit (SATU) at the South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital.
One of the major issues at the conference is pregnancy, because, says Maria, that and domestic violence are closely linked, and associated with issues around control.
“Pregnancy can be a dangerous time for a women in a domestic violence situation,” says Maria, adding that in acknowledgement of this fact, all women attending CUMH’s ante-natal service are screened for domestic violence.
A violent partner, she explains, may perceive a loss of control during a pregnancy because a woman’s priorities and thoughts shift focus during this period.
“The research suggests a strong association with control in all aspects of domestic violence.
“Evidence both internationally and from limited Irish research shows that it can begin, it can escalate or intensify during the pregnancy and post-natal periods.
One element of the training staff receive is to support them in asking the right questions.
“It is about giving women the support to disclose and if she discloses additional support can then be provided,” Maria says, adding that staff can also direct women to, and link them with, support services in the community.
Such training is crucial — and it brings solid results:
“When we provide staff awareness training in the area of domestic violence to ante natal staff and midwives, we find that the number of referrals for domestic violence increases because of the heightened awareness of staff following training.
“Staff feel more confident about asking the right questions and responding appropriately,” she says.
The promotion of staff training and awareness-raising — examples of which are tomorrow’s conference, as well as lower-key departmental and staff briefings such as those which tie in the national campaign, 16 Days of Action — is crucial, she believes.
Domestic violence, she observes, occurs across cultures, races, the social divide and all socio-economic groups.
“In CUMH, we are seeing everything from coercive control to physical violence. We see women presenting to the emergency room following assault, women presenting with injuries which do not match their stated reason for those injuries.
“We see pregnant women prevented from attending ante-natal appointments, women with physical injuries such as bruises, scratches, cuts, black eyes, broken noses and pregnant women who have received kicks and punches to the abdomen, which raises serious concerns in relation to the wellbeing of the foetus.
“We have had a number of women attending our services in Cork about whom staff had very serious and real fear for their lives,” she says, adding that staff at the hospital had seen “shocking examples of violence and control” in relation to every aspect of women’s lives.
“We have seen women whose phones are kept from them, women being left with no money, women enduring significant physical assault and intimidation via social media,” she says, adding that the women range in age from their late teens to their early forties and come from every nationality and socio-economic background.
Many women in controlling relationships where there is no physical violence do not, however, see the way they are being treated as domestic violence.
Yet, she says, such abuse is often long-standing and “it chips away at a women’s confidence, it impacts on her mental health, wellbeing and physical health.”
“Most of the women attending love their partners and want the violence to stop. Some women express fear of their partners but will later retract that saying things have improved.
“There are times when women who feel scared have sought support from us. Some women will access domestic violence services in the community,” she says adding, however, that the majority don’t want to leave the relationship, but need support for themselves.
Anyone seeking support can contact Freephone Women’s Aid on: 1800 341 900 or Mná Feasa in Cork on 021-4211757.