Refuges in NI have had to turn away domestic abuse victims

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
There were 14,443 crimes against women and men in 2017

There were only two emergency bed spaces left in refuges in Northern Ireland for women fleeing domestic abuse earlier this month.

The figures are revealed in a BBC Radio Ulster documentary broadcast on Sunday which gained exclusive access to refuges.

There were 14,443 crimes against women and men in 2017.

That is the highest level recorded since the PSNI started keeping detailed statistics in 2004.

That puts increasing pressure on Women's Aid Northern Ireland, whose refuges have 136 rooms in total and a maximum of 350 bed spaces.

According to their chief executive Jan Melia, they had to turn away 245 women last year as refuges were full.

Interviewed for the documentary earlier in March, she said that pressure on space had not decreased.

"Last week there were four bed spaces left in the whole of Northern Ireland and those were predominantly down in the Omagh area so if a woman in Belfast needed the space we'd have to send her to Omagh," she said.

"At the minute all the refuges are full with about two spaces left here and there is an emergency."

Image source, PA

Ms Melia said that Women's Aid did continue to support women and children who could not get a room in a refuge.

The documentary also heard from women who had suffered domestic abuse.

Jane, not her real name, lived with an abusive partner for eight years.

Although he never actually hit her she said that he controlled every aspect of her life, even how much she could spend on basic food.

"Your head is so programmed to go can I afford this and will he be angry?" she said.

Threat of violence

"You were going through all of that just to pick a sausage roll."

Jane also said that the threat of violence was always present.

"I couldn't describe the fear that I had of this man, I genuinely believed in the months that I was planning to escape that he was going to kill me."

The manager of a women's refuge, called Geraldine, said abusive coercion and control was typical.

"We find a lot of it starts at school on social media - texting who are you talking to? What are you doing with them?" she said.


"And 'you don't need them,' and 'we don't need to go out' and 'we'll not go out with them'.

"The woman's perception at the start is he really, really loves me and I don't need anybody else.

"But it's control."

However, although a similar law has been drawn up in Northern Ireland, it cannot be introduced unless a justice minister is in place.

The former PSNI deputy chief constable Judith Gillespie said she was frustrated that the lack of an executive at Stormont was responsible for the delay.

"Legislation is not the whole answer to all of our problems but it certainly is part of the answer," she said.

"Recognising the phenomenon of coercive, controlling behaviour and criminalising that to the point that people can receive custodial sentences for the damage they inflict on victims is a really important strong message.

"I think the sooner we have that legislation introduced here the better."

For some women, any legislation would be too late.

Image caption,
Mairead McCallion died the day after she claimed her partner assaulted her in February 2014

Ms O'Brien said that her sister's death had devastated her family.

"He was telling her no one wanted her, no one loved her, her family didn't care about her," she said.

"I think she believed that because she had suffered at his hands for so many years, the confidence had literally been knocked out of her."

Noel Knox had been charged with Ms McCallion's murder, but the charges were later dropped.

Mr Knox himself died in late 2017, but Ms O'Brien said that the coroner's verdict came as a relief.

"Mairead's voice was eventually being heard and she was being believed," she said.

When Home Hurts will be broadcast as part of BBC Radio Ulster's Stories on Sound series on Sunday 18 March at 12:30 GMT.

If you've been affected by domestic abuse, the 24-hour domestic violence and sexual violence helpline number is 0808 802 1414.

More on this story