Laois women and children experiencing domestic abuse are staying in dangerous homes because there is nowhere else to go.
The ongoing housing shortage in Laois is having a direct impact on the safety of these women and children, says the co-ordinator of Laois Domestic Abuse Service Marna Carroll.
“A number of women would love to be able to get out, but there is nowhere for them to go. Private rented accommodation is a nightmare, it’s almost impossible. In Portarlington this week we found only three properties, the cheapest being €1200. Social welfare payments don’t stretch to that, so the choice is either emergency accommodation, or a dangerous home,” she said.
The centre offers confidential counselling, support, and court accompaniments. Last year they supported 275 Laois women.
"They come from all backgrounds, all groups. Abuse doesn't discriminate. They may be experiencing rape or sexual assault in their relationships, being videoed and those videos held as blackmail, exposure to porn they don't want to witness, punched, beaten, pinched, spat at, broken noses, limbs or eye sockets, cigarette burns. Some women turn to self harm to release the pain," Ms Carroll said.
Abuse is not necessarily physical.
"They are called every name under the sun, belittled, demeaned, completely degraded. That spoken word is very powerful, his sense of entitlement at being able to force control. I can see it in court appearances, it just takes one look from him," she said.
Women who are more financially independent also call the centre for advice. Based in Portlaoise, it opened 11 years ago. Laois was the last county in Ireland to get a dedicated domestic violence service.
“Funds were tight so we had to focus on offering a Monday to Friday 9 to 5 service,” Ms Carroll said.
In recent weeks, TUSLA has come on board as a core funder, allowing the recruitment of a new full time support worker and a part time administrator, bringing the staff up to four.
“It is a recognition that Laois has been under resourced. It has made an enormous difference to our service. You can see it in the women already. We can now offer weekly appointments rather than fortnightly," she said.
However their funds cannot stretch to helping children or abused men.
“We would love to have funding to work with kids as well. There is a real dearth of services for children in Laois. Exposure to violence is proven to increase a child’s chance of either becoming a perpetrator or a victim of abuse. If we could just get to those little ones, to support and guide them, it would be immensely beneficial.
“Unfortunately we don’t have a Barnardo’s in Laois, they have a programme for children exposed to domestic violence. Partnering with them to offer that needs funding,” Ms Carroll said.
A Laois service for abused men would require separate meeting rooms and staff, for confidentiality reasons, but men can access the centre in Tullamore, at (057) 935 1886.
Ms Carroll is asking the Laois community to fundraise for them.
“Laois is growing and we can’t do this on our own, we need local support. I genuinely believe the will is there,” she said.
Another concern is that laois has no women’s refuge.
“There is none in Offaly or Carlow either. Refuges are often full, but even when they are not, how realistic is it for a women with small children, to relocate to another county. She might not have a car, the kids need to get to school, she would lose her family network. It’s not as simple as getting up and walking out. A lot of the time for women who experience domestic abuse, the familiarity of home, the pattern of the abuse, is less scary than a refuge,” Ms Carroll said.
The council does keep ‘safe houses’ for women but they have no security.
“A refuge in Laois would provide a layer of security through CCTV, and professional support workers that would also give these women someone to talk to about their very real anxieties and vulnerabilities,” she said.
She praised Laois County Council for its support.
“They are excellent at finding emergency accommodation. B&Bs are not an ideal solution, but I am yet to come upon a situation they have not helped,” she said.
Ms Carroll says escaping domestic abuse is not simple but she urges women to take the first step.
“Please call and talk to us. It’s a lonely place when you are being abused, it consumes you to the point you think no one will believe you, but that’s not true, we will listen. I know it's hard, embarrassing and people are afraid, but the biggest improvements come when you talk to a professional service," she said.
Call Laois Domestic Abuse at 8671100.