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Dignity for Domestic Violence Survivors
 
Ms Maryanne Gauci is a 55 year old gentle woman with an endearing Australian accent.  She describes herself as a partner, daughter, sister, niece, carer, an aunt of a 21 year old, special and only nephew, and a returned migrant, after having spent 26 years in Australia.  She looks back with fond memories at her high school and university days and early working days as a social worker, when she also used to be a hockey and tennis player.  Some countries that Ms Gauci visited are quite exotic – Malaysia, Thailand, India, South Africa.  She misses Australia but considers herself lucky to be in Malta which has given her many opportunities, such as, being Malta’s national focal point for the Council of Europe’s campaign to combat violence against women. She also tries to find time for walking, reading, watching movies, and why not, shopping. 

 

Ms Gauci worked for six years in Australia as a qualified social worker, a profession she is proud of.  When she came to Malta she read for her post graduate diploma and masters in gerontology whilst she worked for seven years at the Department for the Elderly, as officer in charge of the Telecare Service.  Her next post was with Aġenzija Appoġġ, where she held various posts, and now occupies the post of Service Manager for Adult and Family Services.  Her altruistic streak led her to work in a caring profession.  She describes social work as an area that looks at individuals in a holistic way in relation to their environment – their family; their communities, and their place in society.  Ms Gauci declares that “I valued people who supported me when I needed help so I wanted to share with others what I had to offer.”

 

At Aġenzija Appoġġ, the Domestic Violence Service offers three services; the Domestic Violence Unit (DVU), Għabex shelter, and the Men’s Services. in the DVU, Social workers deal with victims of violence who may be ‘drop-in’ to the agency for help, or be referred by other services in the agency, or entities outside the agency. There would be an initial assessment regarding whether there are domestic violence issues or not.  For example, sometimes there are no power/control issues as with domestic violence, but issues of marital dispute even though the relationship is an equal one. In cases where there is an immediate crisis, where there is risk to life or safety, or there is injury, the victim is referred to a shelter or hospital or for medical treatment, if they consent.  Ms Gauci explains how they work with women who also may come for guidance, eg. Re legal issues, as they are considering leaving a violent relationship, and are referred for a ‘one-off’ legal consultation provided by the agency’s lawyers.  Some women decide to stay in the relationship; they just want the violent behaviour to stop.  If the woman decides to stay the social workers discuss safety planning with them.  A lot of emotional support is provided to help these women, to build up the courage to ‘open up’ about what they have been through ,and one of the main roles of the social worker here is as a ‘listener’. Some women may have gone through abuse even for up to 30 years, and this may be the first time they have told some-one. UK research shows that it may take up to 30 physical violence incidents before these women take action.  They often have little self-confidence and are traumatised.  It is a relief to finally get the ‘secret’ out.

 

There are long term cases where women return to their abusive partner, but, keep coming back for help. This is typical of the cycle of domestic violence.   Ms Gauci explains that often the social workers have to wait for their clients  to make contact in order not to endanger them, especially if the perpetrator finds out that they have made contact with Appoġġ. However, when they are in contact with the social workers, they are given guidance and supported to seek legal assistance, and liaise with the Department of Social Security especially if initiating separation; among others. The social workers would also liaise with other entities to deal with housing and settling of educational issues in case they have school-age children. The women are also empowered to work on themselves, their identity and confidence, to try and start  a new life. This work is all done at the DVU.

 

When the women and their children-if they have- are at risk or in danger, they are offered a place at Għabex emergency shelter or referred to other shelters provided by the Church and NGOs.  Apart from being referred by the agency, these women can also be referred to Għabex directly by the Police and also through personal referral.  The Coordinator at Għabex, as well as support workers follow-up and support each woman.  These workers coordinate and work closely with the DVU social workers to achieve the care plan that has been set, in order to meet the needs of the women and children.  At Għabex the residents find on-going support and are helped to live a structured way of life that contributes to establishing a daily routine again, after often having come from a life of instability and chaos. 

 

The women and children often have to share rooms with other residents at the shelter, and this they find very difficult Ms Gauci explains.  It is the current system that makes these women leave home and their belongings; because the perpetrators are not being removed from the home as in other countries, so the victims end up being ‘re-victimized’.  This is especially difficult for the children who have to leave behind them their pets, toys, as well as their friends at school, as in severe risk situations children may also not go back to the school they were attending, and even may miss out on school.  Attempts have been made to get volunteers in to help children with in-house educational services, but have not been successful yet.  If the women can afford it, they are asked to contribute financially during the three months, on average, that they stay at Għabex.  After, some may move to a second stage shelter, unless they return home or find their own independent accommodation.

 

Perpetrator Services

Aġenzija Appoġġ also offers Perpetrator Services. The majority of cases are self-referrals; the minority are referred by the courts or by other professionals.  Often, these men have themselves grown up in abusive environments seeing their fathers being violent with their mothers and also been abused themselves as children. This behaviour then comes out in them in their life. This is the explanation given by the ‘social learning’ theory, but there are other explanations as well. The messages given from this behaviour is power equals control.  The role models would have been in the main their abusive fathers controlling their mothers.  By the time they are teenagers these males often start abusing their own mothers.

 

Our approach is to understand their background, but at the same time place the responsibility on the perpetrator for his actions, with the help we offer.  Initially, the social worker/s in this service assess thoroughly whether these men are eligible for the 22 week Programme. It is based on a socio-educational model where the overall principle is to move from an abusive relationship to one of trust and respect.  The men are helped to understand their behaviour and how they can control and take responsibility for it.  After the programme they have the option of attending an on-going support group.  The social worker/s will also follow men on a one-to-one basis whilst they are attending these groups, if the need arises-certain men might go through a crisis; some get suicidal as they find it difficult to come to terms with the separation process.

 

The Courts

Ms Gauci talks about referrals by the courts as part of the important sanctioning process.  The courts have the power to use treatment orders for referral to the Men’s service. However, unfortunately, the Judicial system and legal representatives are either not always aware of these provisions, or are not using them. She explains.   “What I’m afraid is happening for example, is that the defence lawyer may request psychiatric help for the alleged perpetrator, when this is not what is needed, and they get away with it”. In the majority of cases, mental health is not an issue with perpetrators of DV. It is an issue of power and control which can be triggered by other factors. Expert assessments by psychiatrists and forensic psychologists should be ordered more by the courts to see if there are really mental health issues involved, thus avoiding taking unnecessary risks of inappropriate referrals. However, if the Courts were to refer more to Men’s Services as part of treatment orders, the resources in this service need to be increased.

 

She continues to explain that at the end of December 2010 there were 595 victim referrals to DVU.  However, perpetrators average between 45 and 50 per year.  “We should have 595 perpetrator referrals” insists Ms Gauci.  Cases are accepted according to the assessment and inclusion criteria.  If there is severe substance abuse present, there is a big risk that these men would disrupt the others in the group.  Sometimes we can work with them as well whilst they deal with the drug problem with professional help, but this is in cases where the substance abuse is not severe. Also, for example, those men with certain psychiatric problems, like suicidal tendencies, would need initial help first before they can be referred to us, says Ms Gauci. The more severe conditions, such as, psychopathy tendencies and other personality disorders, do not meet the eligibility criteria, and this is in accordance with universally used criteria used throughout many countries.    

 

There is no formal evaluation of the success of the programme, explains Ms Gauci. There exists no empirical evidence, but from our observations and experience, most of the perpetrators stop their physical violence; emotional violence however may continue.  Moreover, very little formal empirical evaluation of Programmes exists even on the international level, except in rich countries, as this would entail a longitudinal study.

 

Effects of domestic violence, explains Ms Gauci, are various and they include loss of self-esteem especially if there is emotional abuse, when the victim is continually told your are ‘worthless, hopeless, nobody wants you’.  In such cases, women can be totally broken, traumised, both psychologically and physically if they have also experienced physical abuse.  If left unsupported they can develop mental health issues and end up in a hospital for patients with mental illness.  They start doubting themselves and blaming themselves for what is happening.  It becomes an issue of the self-fulfilling prophecy-believing what they have been told-that it is all their fault.  The women may become suicidal; they may have nightmares and suffer from lack of sleep.  They may turn to substance abuse to help themselves cope, such as alcohol.  This is symptomatic in cases of trauma, explains Ms Gauci.

 

For their own survival the victims can also develop defence mechanisms such as numbness and minimization of the abuse.  They busy themselves hiding the abuse and keeping it a secret; they even make up stories.  Often, the family does not help especially when they put pressure on them to remain in the situation– “you made your bed you lie on it.”

 

The impact on children also includes lack of self-esteem and self-confidence.  They can suffer from anxiety, internalised behaviour, they go very quiet. The latter need higher vigilance as the quiet ones can get ignored in class as they are  ‘well-behaved’ children.  The children may externalize their behaviour-start acting up and develop behavioural problems that may get them thrown out of school.  They can develop heightened aggression, respiratory illnesses, frequent illnesses, lack of sleep, nightmares, bed-wetting.  Their academic performance can suffer. At the time of the interview there were two (2) children under 11 years of age under psychiatric care due to suicidal tendencies.  They were coming from very severe situations of domestic violence where they could have been both witnessing and suffering direct abuse.

 

Main Challenges

When asked about the agency’s main challenges for the coming years, Ms Gauci responded with optimism for a better future.  In Malta, we need, she said a formal coordination system responsible for domestic violence. In the UK, there exists an inter-disciplinary team that gets together to discuss each case – the Multi-Agency Response Team (MARAC).

 

Again, she repeats her concern regarding the need for more legal sanctioning of the perpetrators.  Not enough perpetrators are taken to court, and there is not enough proper implementation of the current law, Ms Gauci states

 

Another issue is the fact that the police do not have the authority to remove the perpetrator from the matrimonial home.  They can only remove the perpetrator in cases of emergency and keep him under arrest for 48 hours. .  Then perpetrators may even be released on bail even in very severe cases of domestic violence.  Ms Gauci refers to a case of stabbing that occurred a few weeks before where the perpetrator was released on bail two weeks before the stabbing occurred.  “Should the court system be asking expert,  professional/psychiatric assessments prior to letting perpetrators out on bail?” asks Ms Gauci. 

 

Furthermore, she says, in spite of the 2006 Domestic Violence Law, there is still some confusion as to when the police can act ‘ex-ufficio’.  Many policemen at police stations appear not to be familiar with the law as they still insist on victim’s report before they take action.

 

Ms Gauci refers to the legal provision that gives the judiciary discretion to continue or not to hear the case when the victim forgives the perpetrator.  The judiciary needs to be more aware of the reasons for why women in these situations forgive and understand these.  The victim may fear further retribution from the perpetrator if she carries on with the case. They may also be traumatised due to the abuse they have suffered; there may be issues concerning the effect of bringing back the horrible memories if she has to witness in court, particularly in the emotional state that she is in, and therefore it is easier to drop the case and ‘forgive’ .

 

There is very little implementation of the protection/treatment orders.  This may be due to lawyers’ lack of knowledge of the law or resistance to implement it, as previously mentioned.

 

Evaluation for the legal aid system is also on the list.  Ms Gauci states that the allocation of cases is not quick enough. This may be due to lack of resources and/or attitudes. Negative feedback has been given by clients re this service.

 

A unique situation exists in Malta, she says, where victims of domestic violence who proceed with separation are made to go to mediation, thus placing victims at high risk.  “How can you mediate if there are power and control issues?” Ms Gauci asks.  Research shows that separation is one of the most dangerous phases where victims are at risk of femicide.

 

The court system needs addressing as here it is the case that is followed and not the victim.  There exists no linking of cases of separation in the civil court and cases of violence in the criminal or family court. So the victim may have cases in both courts, but the magistrate/judge is not aware of her other case/s, which may have an impact on the decisions made/sentence passed.    Ideally there should be special courts on domestic violence like in the UK.

 

The court regards the evidence of the victim’s social worker as hearsay and not as the evidence of an expert/professional in the field.

 

Cases are taking too long to be presented at Court although this should happen within 4 days.  Again lack of resources may be the problem.

 

As evidenced a couple of months ago, very little protection is offered to victims in court.  There was a case of a victim in the same court room as the perpetrator who had her leg broken by the latter when he was in police custody. In fact, Ms Gauci points out, that currently Appoġġ and the Commission on Domestic Violence (CDV) are paying for police protection of victims going to court in severe cases.

 

Malta, says Ms Gauci, is not realising that the EU can penalise member states for not protecting women in cases of domestic violence as happened with Turkey; a case that was reported in the local press in April of this year.

 

Perpetrators’ rights are paramount, says Ms Gauci.  Victims have difficulty going back to get their belongings. A recent case was when the husband changed locks immediately.  It is even worse for those women whose marital home is not in their name.  This happens often when the house is rented.  In such cases the women need to go to court to get permission to get their belongings.  Police should be given the right to accompany these women even if they stay outside.  They should have the authority to ask the husband to be removed from the house for the safety of the victim and the children.

 

Ms Gauci concluded that what is very positive is the close collaboration with stakeholders particularly with the CDV. Appoġġ representatives sit on the sub-committees on legal issues and service development.  We also work very well with the other shelters (and there is a meeting held on a quarterly basis), as well as with Victim Support Malta, the Vice Squad and with certain police officers at the various stations.

 

Ms Gauci refers to an awareness campaign that they are running jointly with the CDV.  She praises the CDV’s initiative in obtaining this project called “ESF 3.43 – Dignity for Domestic Violence Survivors” partly financed by the European Social Funds (www.domesticviolence.gov.mt).  This is so important, says Ms Gauci.  We need to give women all the help necessary to have the courage to start a new life, free of violence!

 

Ms Gauci stresses that domestic violence can never be tolerated, no matter what. She appeals to victims of violence to call SupportLine 179 for assistance. This service is available free on a 24/7 basis and is serviced by Aġenzija Appoġġ. “Seek out the help that is available”, she concludes.

 

 

Renee Laiviera

Key Expert, ESF 3.43 - Dignity for Domestic Violence Survivors

Commission on Domestic Violence Survivors, www.domesticviolence.gov.mt

 

 

 

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