#childsafety | ‘I can’t live with the thought of being locked down with him’


Calls to family support helplines surged after news broke on a Sunday night in October that an escalation to Level 5 of Living with Covid-19 was being recommended.

As it transpired, it was to be another 2½ weeks before a new version of lockdown was imposed, but the prospect filled those in acrimoniously broken, or continuing but violent, relationships with anxiety and dread. They knew what to expect from the last time and feared a recurrence of issues ranging from breakdown in access and stoppage of maintenance payments to increased physical and emotional abuse.

“I just can’t live with the thought of being locked down with him for another six weeks,” one woman told a service manager with Safe Ireland, the national agency working with 39 frontline domestic violence services across the country. Nearly 3,500 women contacted a domestic violence service for the first time during the initial lockdown.

“Services have to work to keep women safe in their own homes, as well as working to find new safe accommodation if required,” says a spokeswoman. And they are reporting that locating accommodation for women and children to move on from emergency refuges is a big difficulty this time around.

Its recently published report, Tracking the Shadow Pandemic, showed that, over the first six months of the pandemic, more than 1,300 requests for refuge could not be met due to lack of space, which is an average of 225 a month or eight requests a day.

Managers are seeing an increase in severity of violence, reporting that women coming forward are increasingly the victims of vicious and violent physical attacks. Financial abuse is also a big concern. “People who behave badly have used the pandemic as an opportunity to continue to behave badly but in a new way,” says Karen Kiernan, chief executive of One Family, a national organisation for one-parent families.

Parenting plans between separated couples were collapsing in households around the country as the pandemic upended family circumstances almost overnight

The “wall of anxiety out there” is reflected in calls to its helpline in recent weeks as people find it difficult to cope with the thought and then reality of another lockdown. So, what has been the same and what has been different this time round for fractured families and for some of the agencies that support them?

One lesson learned from the first lockdown was when the State’s free Family Mediation Service was classed as “non-essential” and forced to close its doors in March, the phones didn’t stop ringing – “and the staff kept answering”, says its director, Fiona McAuslan.

Parenting plans between separated couples were collapsing in households around the country as the pandemic upended family circumstances almost overnight. There was genuine confusion over how access to children could be managed safely and whether coronavirus restrictions over-rode court orders, while others more cynically thought they had the perfect excuse to alter agreed arrangements to suit themselves.

At a time of such disruption, McAuslan felt the service was letting down clients by shutting its centres around the country. It was “like we were taking the ladder away”.

Suffering from Covid-19 herself at the outset of the closure, she continued to work from home as the service, which operates under the auspices of the Legal Aid Board, recalibrated quickly to try to meet the need out there.

Initially, staff did this through phone and online channels from their homes, although by May they were able to offer mediation through video conferencing.

The big difference now is that they are regarded as an essential service, McAuslan says, and this means they can continue with a “blended” service, of both face-to-face and online mediation through Level 5.

Crime and family law were immediate priorities in keeping a skeleton justice system going back in March when otherwise “the societal impact of courts closing was dangerous, to put it frankly”, says the chief executive of the Courts Service, Angela Denning. “We knew from international evidence, in China and Italy, that the numbers of applications in relation to domestic violence would increase.”

Domestic violence and child protection cases were classed as “urgent” and while, in general, issues of access and maintenance weren’t regarded as such, people could make applications for emergency hearings, she says.

Statements from Judge Daly helped hugely in offering practical advice and clarifying that travel restrictions do not apply to child access arrangements

In those early days, the president of the District Court, Judge Colin Daly, met various support groups in the general family law area to understand “how we needed to adapt our services”, Denning says.

There were concerns that people would use the pandemic as an excuse not to provide access to children. But she believes statements from Judge Daly back in March, and again during these Level 5 restrictions, have “helped hugely” in offering practical advice and clarifying that travel restrictions do not apply to child access arrangements.

Essentially, he urged parents to put the child first and use their common sense in negotiating health concerns around access. He made clear that co-parents could agree to vary arrangements that had been made by court order in relation to access and/or maintenance, and indicated that the reasonableness of both parties in trying to devise alternative arrangements would be taken into consideration if unresolved matters subsequently ended up in court.

Karen Kiernan, chief executive of One Family: ‘People who behave badly have used the pandemic as an opportunity to continue to behave badly but in a new way.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

In comparing what One Family is hearing this time around with the earlier lockdown, the big positives, Kiernan says, are the schools and early years services staying open, along with the permission for a lone-parent household to form a “bubble” with another household. Initially, some parents were concerned that they would have to form that bubble with the separated co-parent, but that was not the case.



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