Victims of domestic violence have spoken out about receiving letters explaining that they could lose their single-parent payments if they do not attempt to contact their abusers for child maintenance.
Last month, The Times published the story of ‘Kate’ who left her partner after she was physically abused during the early stages of pregnancy. She was granted one-parent family allowance but received a letter from the maintenance recovery unit at the Department of Social Protection requesting that she make “reasonable efforts to look for maintenance from the other parent of the child” within two weeks. She was told that failure to do so may lead to her one-parent family payments being terminated. Kate, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, had already provided the department with a court order banning the father from threatening her or being near her home and reportedly had “the fright of [her] life” seeing the letter because she thought the order had guaranteed her safety. Spark, a support group for single parents, have since revealed that this was not a one-off occurence and that they have been made aware of other victims of domestic violence who were put at risk.
Responding to the controversy, Regina Doherty, Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, has vowed to ensure that no more victims of domestic violence will be affected this way. She has made arrangements to meet with Kate to hear her story. Ms Doherty spoke on the radio programme Today with Seán O’Rourke and said “we will never put women in dangerous situations in more danger and if I have to change the wording of the letters, and change the practice of people’s actions within the department, then that’s what we’ll do”. She explained that the department is there to provide support and that she will ensure that this mistake is not repeated. When asked to explain how this error had occurred, Ms Doherty suggested that there may have been a “gap” between the maintenance recovery unit and the list of domestic abuse victims held by the department. Indeed, when Kate spoke to the department upon receipt of the letter, she was told that the letter had been sent by another part of the department which had no knowledge of her being a domestic abuse victim.
Several commentators have described the steps necessary to take to prevent such a dangerous and unacceptable error occurring again. The director of Woman’s Aid, Margaret Martin, has called for sexual violence and domestic abuse training for those working in the Department of Social Protection. It also seems that administrative changes are necessary, given that it is evident that the list of domestic abuse victims is not currently properly maintained. Spark spokeswoman Louise Bayliss expressed concern that there are no “proper protocols in place to ensure” that victims of domestic violence are protected and that “the government keeps reiterating that survivors should not be forced to contact their abusers, but they have not explained how they identify who survivors are”. Independent senator Lynne Ruane reportedly wrote to the Law Reform Commission last month asking for child maintenance procedures to be reviewed and it is hoped that immediate training and administrative changes will ensure the safety of those who are particularly vulnerable.