The introduction of the Domestic Violence Act on 28 February 2006 was a day of hope for people working with the victims of domestic violence, but those victims still face the prospect of finding themselves homeless when they reach the point where they can take the abuse no longer, instead of the abuser being ordered out of the family home.
According to Agenzija Appogg, the Domestic Violence Act provides for a protection order to prohibit or restrict access by the accused, for a period not exceeding six months or until final judgment, to premises in which the injured person or any other individual specified in the order, lives, works or frequents, even if the accused has a legal interest in those premises.
Normally, the perpetrator is evicted from the home following an application filed by the victim’s lawyer. The court normally accedes to such a request when it considers that the perpetrator is a threat to his/her family and/or that, as a result of his/her actions, his/her family would suffer if they were to be the ones to leave the matrimonial home.
However, it must be noted that this is not the norm, since the circumstances of the case need to be taken into account by the court, with the result that a protection order is not granted automatically or in all cases.
Programm Sebh manager Josette Stensen speaks about the issues she and her team face every day at this second-stage shelter.
“When the Domestic Violence Act was being launched and a commission on domestic violence being appointed, the two developments brought more awareness and other possibilities of change amongst professionals within agencies, shelters (supporting women and children through domestic violence matters), men, other family members of both parties and society in general,” Josette Stensen explained.
Things have improved and comparing our general services in the domestic violence field with other European countries, and considering the lack of resources, Malta stands as a positive example when participating in conferences abroad. However, Ms Stensen believes that there are still areas requiring further study, and the legal aspect is one of them. This remains an area that frustrates professionals in the domestic violence field and those in need of the service.
Domestic violence can be experienced by everyone within a household – women, men, children and other members of the family. Having said that, Ms Stensen points out that from experience and from ongoing research, in most cases of domestic violence it is women and children who have to leave the matrimonial home – social housing, privately rented accommodation or sometimes accommodation offered by in-laws or other relatives – due to abuse, threats or safety issues on the part of the husband/partner. It is the women and children who keep suffering losses and humiliation. It is the children who have to change school, depending on where they are offered shelter. It is the women who have to pay legal fees which, most of the time, they cannot afford, to proceed with their separation and matters related to the care and custody of their children, especially when legal aid is not available or takes too long. In such cases, the woman has to choose a private lawyer who gets matters moving more quickly, but obviously charges a fee.
Separation in cases of domestic violence usually take a long time because either the perpetrator does not turn up in court, so the sitting has to be postponed, or there are disagreements regarding the matrimonial home, especially when an agreement cannot be reached during the mediation phase, or because of children’s care and custody issues or when women cannot afford to pay for their court applications.
Ms Stensen went on to say that women often do not receive any maintenance money from the father of their children, but the father insists on seeing his offspring and sometimes harasses the mother because of this. It is sometimes the case that, because of aggressive behaviour from the abusers and further frustration on the part of the women, the children suffer a lot of guilt as they think their parents are fighting over them. This in turn prompts many women to stop the legal proceedings as they are having to pay for the lawyer themselves and know that it will take a long time to reach a conclusion.
In the 10 years that Ms Stensen has been working at Dar Qalb ta Gesu she knows of only one case of a lawyer taking this matter seriously. The father was sentenced to a few days in prison because he refused to make the maintenance payments as agreed in court.
“However, his partner still had problems as, due to the court order, her social security benefits dwindled and when the husband once again stopped paying maintenance, she had to seek social assistance again and until the whole procedure had been dealt with, she did not have enough money to care for her children,” she explained.
Although the Domestic Violence Act of 2006 speaks about supporting the victims – or rather ‘survivors’ which Ms Stensen prefers – they feel that they are being even more victimised as, apart from the physical and emotional abuse, they are also stripped of their dignity. On a more positive note, the Domestic Violence Act states that the perpetrator has to leave the matrimonial home within four days of a court order, Ms Stensen pointed out.
In fact, there was a case at the shelter recently where this happened, where once the sentence had been passed, the perpetrator had to leave the matrimonial home within a few days and the woman moved back to the house with her children. Thanks to her lawyer’s expertise, and because she had the means to pay the legal fees, it only took eight months for her to return to her matrimonial home and have a protection order in respect of her and her children.
Ms Stensen recalled another case of a woman who spent 16 months moving from shelter to shelter before she actually moved back into her matrimonial home but again she could afford to pay her lawyer so that the latter moved on with her case. Here, Ms Stensen asks, was it the dedication of both lawyers that moved the process forward, or the money that both women could afford to pay for all the court applications? It could be argued that it is a combination of both, but the end result is that it can happen even if, in reality, the number of such success stories is very low.
Ms Stensen worries about the women who do not have the means to pay for every court application that needs to be made, so their case falls back as time passes and, in turn, the courts cannot take any action regarding the perpetrator leaving the home.
“Legal aid is available, but those who work with such cases see the difference between cases where the women have a private lawyer and those who are on legal aid. We had situations where women changed to private lawyers and their case took a different aspect. Having said that, I cannot generalise because every case is unique,” Ms Stensen added, but she pointed out that the legal aid service needs overhauling.
Restraining orders and protection orders are issued but these usually take too long to implement, adding to the women’s frustration as the perpetrator continues with his negative behaviour. Ms Stensen also referred to lawyers’ knowledge of domestic violence matters and the importance they put into such proceedings for the safety of women and children.
She calls for more cooperation among professionals – including the courts, lawyers, law enforcement officials and everyone else who is involved in cases of domestic violence. “The professionals’ work needs to be evaluated and certain cases warrant further discussion. The idea is to provide a better service for the whole family and to start using a holistic approach, focusing on psychological needs, because I believe such matters affect the whole family – the person being abused, the perpetrator and the children – in different ways and eventually society in general. Very often, even schools and staff have to deal with worry and fear” she added.
Ms Stensen pointed out that when women and children are in a shelter they receive support and psychological help to become stronger individuals and able to face a better future without fear or violence. In the meantime, the perpetrator will still be living in the family home and insisting on seeing his children, even if he is not being responsible by paying any maintenance to his family and in most cases is continuing to threaten his victim.
She strongly believes that the abuser has his own personal issues to deal with. Fear, pain, losses and sadness hit every member of the family in such cases and although the perpetrators find it difficult to understand and accept this, the lawyers involved should encourage the perpetrators to seek help to be able to better cope with such situations while the legal proceedings are ongoing so that the courts can build on the progress registered. She feels that, maybe, with some more effort in this regard the perpetrators will be less aggressive and accept more responsibility for their negative behaviour and for what needs to be done for the sake of everyone involved.
Ms Stensen points out that once women decide they are not going to be abused any more, and take responsibility for their children’s wellbeing by seeking help, they are showing society that they are survivors. However, Ms Stensen is concerned that, once they are in shelter away from their home and have to face all the above-mentioned problems, society in general regards these women as victims and so victims they remain, when it should be the abuser who seeks help or encouragement to face the consequences of his behaviour in order to deal with his violence, whether physical, emotional or sexual. The system cannot continue to reinforce this negative behaviour by allowing the abuser to avoid accepting responsibility for his behaviour, because once he finishes an episode with a wife or a partner there may be another woman who will suffer the same and the possibility of more births and many children not knowing who their actual parents are.
Agenzija Appogg does offer men’s services but Ms Stensen thinks that lawyers and the courts should be making more use of such a service, together with other support such as psychological assessments and better networking with social workers and shelters who that face such situations every day.
Finally, Ms Stensen says: “Working and creating a body of expertise in this field of domestic violence as lawyers, social workers, police officers, teachers, health practitioners, religious people, court officials or others who are involved with such cases, and discussing and learning together, may result in a better service for those who need it, positive changes it society in general and a healthier family environment.”