Seanad Éireann - Volume 96 - 09 December, 1981

Adjournment Matter. - Co-operation between the Department of Health and Women's Aid.

[1263] An Cathaoirleach: The Chair has received notice from Senator Robinson that on motion for the Adjournment of the House she proposes to raise the following matter: the level of co-operation between the Department of Health and the Women's Aid organisation. Before I call on Senator Robinson I might say that the procedure adopted this evening was entirely exceptional and the House should understand that it is not a procedure which I will regard in future as a precedent. It is entirely a matter for the Senators concerned to be present at the appropriate time.

Mrs. Robinson: I begin by apologising to the House for the fact that I was absent. I was dealing with a personal family problem in my own home, and I was not here to deal with this matter when it might have been much more convenient for all Members. I would like to thank the Leader of the House and the Cathaoirleach for the facility I was afforded. It does give me an opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment and Senator McGuinness will also contribute.

We wish to draw attention to the essential need for and desirability of close co-operation and involvement between the Women's Aid organisation and the Department of Health. I would even extend that to other agencies such as Dublin Corporation, Dublin County Council and Dun Laoghaire Corporation as housing authorities and the Department of the Environment. We are all aware of the present crisis relating to Women's Aid, which is the voluntary organisation concerned with the position of bettered wives and their families and which has been providing a vital service to these very vulnerable families in our community since 1974. We are aware of the present urgent crisis because an already difficult and unacceptable situation has been worsened dramatically by [1264] the accident of fire on 4 September last. Prior to that, and indeed ever since 1974, the situation has not been a satisfactory one. Women's Aid, as a voluntary body, have been trying to bridge an important gap in our social services.

However one of the first points I would like to make in outlining the position is that there has been considerable support from the relevant agencies, the Eastern Health Board, central Government, Dublin Corporation and Dublin County Council. What appears to have been lacking, and I refer to the situation under successive Governments, is a degree of co-ordination, of proper identification of the problem and the political commitment to ensure the follow-through by establishing the kind of structural supports that are necessary for battered wives and their children in our society.

It is really that problem of co-operation and co-ordination that is central to this motion. We are aware of the immediate crisis because the existing location of the refuge of Women's Aid at Harcourt Terrace was damaged by fire on 4 September last, and it can no longer be used overnight as a refuge. This meant that there was a critical need for a short-term refuge, and also for our society to face up to the urgent provision of a more planned, service-built or adapted building to be used in the longer-term as a refuge.

If I might refer now to the human details of the situation. Women's Aid published last February a booklet, Family Violence in which they identified the serious nature of the problem in our society. It is not unique to our society but we do have quite a serious level of family violence, which is in many cases aggravated by alcoholism. This booklet shows that over the period they have operated, since 1974, Women's Aid have provided shelter and a refuge to a constant flow of battered wives and a considerable number of children of those wives. This has revealed part of the demand for this kind of refuge and shelter. Because it is a voluntary organisation, Women's Aid has only tapped some of the demand and real needs in Dublin and elsewhere.

In May last, the Women's Aid organisation was served with a notice to quit [1265] their premises at Harcourt Terrace. So at that stage there was an urgent crisis. They were warned that if they did not leave those premises by May 17 legal proceedings would follow. Their present landlords do not yet appear to have issued a summons and so there have not yet been legal proceedings. All during that period and since then it appears that both Women's Aid itself and the Eastern Health Board have been seeking to find suitable alternative premises. There have been conflicting views of the precise responsibility both for locating those premises and for allocating money for the premises. Women's Aid have made the point that until the money was allocated they were not in a position to bid for premises which they had located as being either suitable or reasonably suitable for adaptation. Here again the level of co-operation on both sides does not appear to have been as adequate as it should have been in view of the extreme need to provide for the families concerned.

What do we mean when we are talking about suitable premises? It would be helpful if the Minister of State would give the view of the Department on the kind of premises which would be reasonably suitable for adaptation as a refuge. In my view such premises would have to be sufficiently large. It would be desirable that there would be a garden, because of the number of families and children involved. Obviously the premises would have to be structurally sound, and there would have to be either in existence or through adaptation the facility of a large kitchen to be used by a number of families in a community setting. Similarly, a large sitting room and play room space would be required, as well as sleeping accommodation.

Women's Aid and others who are aware of their work are of the view that this refuge, whether it is a purpose-built refuge or whether it is an adapted building, should be used as a short-term stay refuge, that it would be desirable to have a process involving perhaps three stages. The first stage would be the refuge, to which families would go in the emergency of their particular situation, where they would stay for a period of six to eight [1266] weeks, where they would benefit from assessment, help, an initial breathing space even, and then they would be moved to a second stage, a family therapy centre. I understand that the premises which the refuge are using on the north side are capable of being used as a family therapy centre. This is an important second stage because of the complex needs of the families involved. There would also be a third stage, when families could be helped to be less dependent, given the privacy of living either in one family unit or sharing a house, or flats in a house. This could be while waiting to be allocated housing on the corporation housing list, having satisfied the residential requirements or possibly to give the wife who does not wish to return to her husband an opportunity to be retrained if she wants to work, building up a capacity to be more self-sufficient and less dependent.

This whole process involves a great deal of sensitivity, co-operation, back-up and support. At the moment the structures are not there for that back-up and support. It is true that the Eastern Health Board are funding the present staffing costs, including a social worker and three full-time workers for the children involved. It is important to stress the particular needs of those children, some of whom are inevitably disturbed by the trauma they may have suffered in their family life. Also on the staff there is an administrator, a house-keeper and a secretary. So there is at the moment a corps of specialist staff being funded by the Eastern Health Board. Also, Dublin County Council have allocated £14,000 as a housing aid, and Dublin Corporation have allocated £5,000 in aid which still has to be approved by the Department of the Environment.

So there are various kinds of assistance available, but what appears always to have been lacking — this is really a problem of successive Governments — is a clear examination of the needs and a structured approach to the problem of battered wives. It is not just a question of providing a physical refuge and then forgetting about it. It requires providing a proper refuge, then a second stage process, [1267] and then a third stage process, thereby helping those families to become self-sufficient again; either to return to the family home, if that is possible, or alternatively to establish an independent existence with their children. It may therefore involve re-training, work opportunities and so on.

The present situation is that money has been allocated now by the Government if suitable premises can be found. Here again, I feel there may be a sort of catch 22 situation. Obviously it is difficult for a voluntary body to find suitable premises without a definite allocation. We now have the definite allocation but I feel something more is still needed. Perhaps it requires the secondment of an official from the Department of Health. I am not sure, and perhaps the Minister would comment on this. But it seems as though now that the money has been allocated — despite the very difficult economic climate — that the co-operation which I am talking about requires an active involvement by the Department in locating in the first instance perhaps a temporary premises, and then a suitable premises for adaptation as a refuge as the first stage of the process which I have been describing, because even if premises were found tomorrow, it is still very likely that there would have to be planning permission for adaptation of those premises, which could take a certain amount of time, and that there would have to be some work done in adapting those premises for the particular purpose.

Inevitably there would be a time lag — perhaps a time lag of a couple of months — even if the premises were to be located tomorrow. So there is a short-term crisis. This short-term crisis is all the more serious because unfortunately the Christmas period is one when the problem of family violence tends to be at its most severe. This is borne out again by the numbers of families and children who have been in the refuge in previous Christmases. Over Christmas 1980, for example, there were 24 women and about 60 children. Immediately after Christmas this had gone up to 26 women and 90 children — a very high level of [1268] women and children — in the Women's Aid refuge last Christmas.

This Christmas the problem is that they cannot stay overnight at the refuge. They stay in an Eastern Health Board hostel at night and the situation is therefore most difficult for them. Just to give the figures as of today, as of this afternoon: there were five families in Harcourt Terrace with a total of 19 children. Indeed, one woman with five children arrived today. So it is a very pressing problem. It is a very critical problem. It is not just a question of locating a refuge and putting all the battered wives into it and forgetting about it. It is extremely important that we see the necessity for a structured process of providing the immediate need through a refuge, the second stage of family therapy which can help cope with family problems identified and which can give the sort of follow-up and even self-confidence that is necessary. Then the third stage for those who have a housing or returning to work or an independence problem. They too must have the resources and facilities.

This element of sustained co-operation between the Department and Women's Aid as the voluntary body which is coping with one of the most urgent problems in our society has never been fully responded to by any Government. I welcome, therefore, the earmarking, even at this difficult time, of the sum of money for a new refuge, but I think this is only part of the overall social problem.

Mrs. McGuinness: I should like to thank the Chair for facilitating us in having this debate now because, as Senator Robinson said, it is a problem of very grave importance. The problem has become acute on account of the fire in the Harcourt Terrace shelter in September.

As a person who is involved in the family law scene I know what a large number of family violence problems arise and how important it is in a scene of crisis in a family that a wife who is subject to violence and whose children are being damaged by family violence should have some place to turn to. This should be a well thought-out and well organised process [1269] in which she and her family can be rehabilitated as well as just sheltered from the present crisis of violence.

As far as the Harcourt Terrace shelter was concerned, this was a problem even before there was a fire. There was the matter of the landlord serving notice to quit and the threat of legal proceedings against the Women's Aid organisation. In any case, Women's Aid and anyone who knew the Harcourt Terrace premises knew perfectly well they were physically very unsuitable and that they were a fire hazard. This is something to which some of us drew attention last May. Having gone to Harcourt Terrace to consult with clients who were taking legal action on account of the family violence, I can certainly bear witness to the fact that it was far from being an ideal premises or in good condition. I very much welcome the assurance that there will be money available for a new premises but I would emphasise again what Senator Robinson has said, that it would need quite a bit of co-operation. Not only will they need planning permission to alter premises, they will probably need planning permission to use it at all because I would think it is probably a change of user. Other charitable organisations have come up against this before.

The Government were committed in their Programme for Government to instituting a charter of co-operation for the voluntary charitable bodies and for voluntary bodies working in the social work field. This is an opportunity to show an earnest of their goodwill in the co-operation between statutory and voluntary bodies. This can be an example of what may be done in the future through this charter and I am vitally interested that this kind of co-operation should develop. If we can show in the case of Women's Aid that the statutory bodies and the voluntary organisations can work together to produce an acceptable solution to this problem, then we will have set a headline for this to happen in other fields.

There has been a good deal of co-operation in the past. The social workers working in the Women's Aid centre have [1270] been seconded from the health board and have been employed and paid by the statutory agencies while working in Women's Aid, but it probably needs a better thought-through system. Up to the time of the fire they were running a two-stage system of houses where they had Harcourt Terrace for the immediate problem and they had a couple of half-way houses that the women and children moved on to, but they have been forced by the fire to use the half-way houses for immediate occupation. This has created a very grave problem because they now have no half-way stage and it is not enough to put a roof over the heads of these women and children. They have to be helped gradually to get back into society.

There is just one other problem as regards the choice of premises. The premises should be capable of being reasonably secure against attack because it has been a problem in Harcourt Terrace that from time to time violent husbands have come to the premises and tried to gain entry. It was a good thing that the premises was opposite the Garda station. This is one point I would draw to the attention of the Minister when selecting a premises. It must be reasonably secure.

Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare (Miss Flaherty): I am very glad to confirm last night's decision to commit money for the finding of a new and suitable refuge for Women's Aid. This is, I hope, a milestone which will possibly turn what was a dreadful tragedy into an ultimate benefit. I am glad that both the speakers recognise that the crisis, while it has had a new immediacy recently, is one which has been with us for a very long time and one with which successive Governments have so far failed to deal. That is why I welcome last night's decision to commit the money. It is very much a step in the right direction. Even today the results have indicated that that commitment has led to a great deal of extra movement in the whole area of finding premises and I will return to that later.

The crisis in relation to battered wives in Dublin and throughout the country has [1271] not been dealt with seriously up to now. This reaction in this particular case is not enough and we are committed to looking beyond it. The situation in which Women's Aid in Dublin have found themselves is one which I do not think any Christian community could tolerate for much longer, and it was in the face of that crisis that the response emerged last night.

The response of the Department to the crisis in Women's Aid pre-dates the fire in Harcourt Terrace. The helping of Women's Aid did not start with yesterday's decision. The organisation have been in receipt of help from the Eastern Health Board in the last six years. Senator Robinson referred to the staffing support which is given. Payments have been made since 1975 and in 1979 the Eastern Health Board purchased a house for Women's Aid in Howth Road, Dublin. There has been no shortage of official support for Women's Aid either in the Department of Health or the Eastern Health Board and I know that the individuals who run the organisation recognise this fact. The only lack was the kind of commitment that was given last night and had that commitment been given previously the crisis of September might have been avoided. There has been a willingness to help but I will refer now to the actual difficulties that have emerged.

The Department and the Eastern Health Board in each case where Women's Aid have suggested premises since September have looked at those premises. Only two have come directly to the Minister. The first of these, all involved agreed, would be totally unsuitable. The second seemed superficially suitable, but turned out to be lacking in planning permission. The Senator asked me to outline what would be a suitable premises. Obviously a suitable premises will have to cater for a large number of families and children and will have to have potential for being developed into a number of small units. There is no one type of premises that would do. It is conceivable that something on a large community basis, something collective in [1272] small units might be suitable. The Department are encouraging Women's Aid to look as far afield as possible and at as many options as possible and this might lead to more choices.

I am glad to say that following last night's decision Women's Aid informed us today that they have had quite a number of approaches from various persons who would be aware of or have property which might be suitable. That decision has already led to some significant movement in the area.

I accept that while the health board and the Department have sought to help the organisation as much as possible there has been some failure to co-ordinate and the Department today have worked out a system by which they will attempt to co-ordinate better the architectural aspects of the efforts by Women's Aid, the Department and the Eastern Health Board. This response has emerged in part from a crisis but it is also part of our Government's wider commitment to the whole area of problems in families. While Dublin is a very pressing case, we are conscious that in all the major cities this is becoming a problem which we must accept as permanent and for which permanent solutions need to be found. We are very concerned that, as well as Dublin, these other areas will be looked at and that a national plan for the problem will be developed.

The danger in this particular case is that the crisis nature of the situation might lead us to accept a solution that would simply leave the women and the children in as bad a situation as they have been in for the last three years. Women's Aid themselves accept that despite the urgency it is important that decisions should not be too hasty now and that the solution we find should ensure a permanent and acceptable and homely refuge for women and children who have undergone sufficient problems and stress without having to face the stress of appalling living conditions as well. Because of that awareness the Government have committed themselves to making this money available in this case and the Department are committed to redoubling their efforts [1273] to move speedily towards the discovery of a suitable location.

Senator McGuinness referred to our charter for voluntary bodies and there has been a certain amount of discussion going on. The example of the kind of co-operation which exists already in this area and the commitment to develop that co-operation will, perhaps, be a case study for co-operation between voluntary bodies and statutory bodies. Certainly, I think it is the ideal development.

I give Senator Robinson my personal assurance that there is no catch 22 here in terms of the limitation that a place must be suitable and must be within reasonable cost. We have no mandate to spend wildly the country's money but we have a mandate to support people in need. We are committed to avoiding the danger of accepting somewhere for the sake of disposing of the problem but we are concerned that the solution will be a permanent one and that the building found will be suitable. If necessary, consideration will be given to the possibility of a new purpose-built premises.

I conclude by confirming that the commitment given last night to make funds available will be followed through by maximum co-operation with Women's Aid, with the health board and the Department of Health in the finding of a speedy solution to this problem. If it [1274] proves impossible to deal with it in a relatively short time due to the complexity of finding property, further consideration will be given to other short-term measures for the refuge until the permanent refuge can be made available.

Mrs. Robinson: On the question of the short-term measures, clearly I welcome very much the Minister's own commitment and the fact that the allocation has definitely been made by the Government but it appears that no matter what goodwill there is, and no matter how earnestly premises are sought, there will be a necessary time lag even of a few months. The Minister did mention the possibility of a short-term measure. Surely that is necessary now, say over two months or maybe even three months, while the permanent refuge is coming on stream.

Miss Flaherty: Our meetings go on regularly with Women's Aid, and at present they are willing to cope with the present circumstances if they are satisfied that a solution will come relatively quickly. If a particular building is agreed upon and we are clear that work on it will take some time, obviously the situation will have to be looked at again.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 10 December, 1981.