‘I was programmed like a doll, to say and do the same thing over and over’

Imagine feeling trapped in a house or apartment with someone that is controlling, abusive and manipulating. Imagine taking your children and having to seek shelter in safe quarters. Or think of the deep emotional hurt when the person you fell in love with suddenly forces you to fear for your life.

ow combine all the above and imagine a societal lockdown instructs you to stay at home 24/7 to help ‘flatten the curve’. This is what life is like for victims of domestic abuse during lockdown; women so afraid for their safety, and their children’s, that they are willing to risk everything to find sanctuary and a second chance in life.

Domestic abusers did not need Covid-19 to act maliciously; they simply used it as cover, an extra weapon to perpetrate a crime against women.

At the beginning of the first lockdown in March, I spoke with Catherine Casey, General Manager of Adapt Kerry Women’s Refuge and Support Services. Catherine speaks in concerned tones for the women who face increasing dangers due to lockdown.

It is sometimes difficult for Catherine and her team to talk openly and in detail about the truth, as confidentiality can often be the difference between endangering a woman’s life and giving her the space and time she needs to recover from her ordeal.

“We understand the difficulty and I would ask women to reach out to us,” Catherine said.

“Some women are slow to come forward. It is a very difficult thing, to name that you are living with domestic violence. Do not be worried that we are not the right agency to contact. We will signpost you. But if you are worried about the impact your relationship is having on you, then talk to us and we will figure it out from there,” she added.

I talk with four women from the Adapt Kerry Women’s Refuge. They offer me a glimpse of how lockdown turned a bad situation worse. By communicating what happened, they hope to reach other women – the silent minority of victims – waiting for the courage to spur them on and leave behind their past.

For safety reasons the women cannot be named in this interview. Yet they continue to navigate their lives away from the storm while their abusers persist in facing it.

Catherine tells me how in normal times, the freedom to roam and find space occasionally tosses women and children a chance of escapism from abusive relationships. But lockdown brought victims eyeball to eyeball with their abusers in the confines of the home.

Catherine said Covid left women exposed to the hardships of physical abuse and mental torture like never before, a statement borne out by recent figures from a Safe Ireland survey that show upwards of 2,000 women and over 400 children, nationally, received support from a domestic violence service between March and August – the first six months of Covid restrictions.

It also shows that 3,450 women and 589 children, who had never – as far as is known – contacted a domestic violence service before, looked for support and safety between March and August. In Kerry, in the first eight months of 2020, Adapt received 646 telephone calls from women looking for support compared with 311 calls for the same period last year.

The first woman I chat with is a mother of four. She came to stay at the Adapt Women’s Refuge during the first lockdown having accessed support from Outreach Services.

Her husband is described as ‘financially controlling’, even though she worked and earned her own money. Her husband was prone to following her every time she left the house.

“He decided when the range was lit, or heating was put on; he even timed how long the lights were on so it wouldn’t cost extra,” she said.

She describes Covid as being ‘very difficult’ as she tried to move on with her life in a normal way. She then faced what is a common stumbling block for many women contemplating leaving abusive partners: seeking alternative accommodation without financial means. This caused her untold stress.

As society nears the end of its second lockdown, she and her children are in a much happier and safer place, having found a new house in a new location with the help of Adapt.

“I can light the stove now whenever I want. We are lucky that we did get out of the house when we did. I know we would have been at greater risk had we stayed,” she said.

There are 39 front-line services across the country, including ADAPT Kerry. Combined, these centres recorded 33,941 helpline calls during lockdown – an average of 184 calls a day. In addition, services needed to transform overnight to cope with the surge in cases and provide vital, virtual services to women in lockdown. The correlation between domestic abuse and Covid is evident in the next woman’s testimony.

A mother of three, she and her husband lost their jobs during Covid. Both were in receipt of the Covid payment. Her husband refused to pay household bills or contribute towards food and the upkeep of their children. She speaks of her husband’s ‘controlling manner’ and how he would spend his time ‘monitoring’ her.

“I was forced to use my money and had to tap into my savings, which are now depleted. This was my rainy-day fund; I knew I would need some day,” she said.

During the duration of lockdown, over 33,000 phone support sessions, 575 video support sessions, in addition to 8,143 in-person support sessions, were logged nationally. Helpline emails, texts and online chat messages became more important than ever. Services received 2,260 helpline emails, 3,452 texts and 1,047 online chat messages. The significance of these figures indicates that women at different stages of domestic abuse were reaching out. Seeking help early is essential to avoid letting an abuser’s antics escalate.

The third woman tells me how she secured a barring order and legal aid with the support of Adapt. She talks of having endured years of physical, mental, verbal, and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband.

“After years of abuse I was programmed like a doll, to say and do the same thing over and over,” she said.

‘It wasn’t the beating, but the fear beforehand as I didn’t know how far he would go this time. This always happened on what would have started out a perfect day; once he knew that, he would ruin it for me. I would cover up my black and blue face with makeup and stay away from my brothers and sisters.

“I was so ashamed and embarrassed. My heart was broken for my children and my inability to do something, anything. With the help of Adapt they turned my mountain into a hill, bit by bit, overtime,” she said.

One of the main lapses during the peak of Covid coverage was the daily reporting on the impact lockdown had on our lives: no restaurants, no pubs, no shopping, no sun holidays. Important as these topics are in their own context, they are trivial when stacked against the bleakness and long hours of stomach-churning anxiety faced by the women caught between a global pandemic and a domestic one.

We now know that behind anecdotal evidence of Covid-19 restrictions, a silent and fearful minority struggled to cope. Women for whom outspokenness led to consequences; for whom fear led to harsh reality, and for whom safety led to uncertainty.

‘Feeling controlled’ is a form of abuse that comes up frequently in my discussions with the victims of domestic abuse. The fourth and final woman I speak with, a mother of four, puts ‘control’ at the centre of her ordeal. Her partner also denied her financial autonomy during Covid.

“I wasn’t allowed out of the house. He insisted that the children and I go with him to the shop. We had to wait in the car while he did the shopping, and then we would all go home together,” she explains.

“He used Covid to stop me visiting my dying mother. I went to court for a barring order with my four small children as schools and crèches were closed and I did not have any family, but he was still living nearby.

“The judge got two gardaí to look after my eldest two. My application was denied, and I fled the locality. It was very upsetting and stressful for me to continuously repeat my reasons for travelling to the gardaí at checkpoints during the Covid travel restrictions, I wanted to get out of the car to explain and they insisted I stay in the car. I wish there was a code I could have used. Adapt have accompanied me to court and have signposted us to other services, for me and my children,” she said.

Catherine Casey concludes by telling me these cases are but a scratch on the surface. During the first lockdown, Adapt Kerry handled 150 requests from women looking for shelter, an increase of 111 on the same time-frame last year.

“Unfortunately, we were unable to accommodate 67 women because we did not have the space at that time,” Catherine explained.

“We are, however, able to offer Outreach Support to all women who reach out to us. We offer to look at safety plans with women, which may include accessing other refuges or homeless services, or looking at safe places they may be able to access,” she said.

“We can offer court accompaniment if the woman wants to apply for legal orders. We recognise that every woman’s experience is unique, and our role is to ensure that we listen and respond to each woman when they reach out and talk to us,” Catherine added.

Adapt Kerry’s telephone support is open 24 hours a day on: 066 71 29100. You can also make Christmas donations by visiting: www.kerryrefuge.com

Independent.ie – News