Domestic violence in Northern Ireland has reached an alarming peak – but police believe shocking new figures tell only a fraction of the story, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.
Over 27,000 incidents of domestic abuse were recorded in the last year alone, with the PSNI now attending, on average, 60 domestic-related call-outs every day.
The number of actual domestic abuse convictions, meanwhile, stood at almost 11,620. And deaths resulting from domestic crime are now averaging five per year.
Despite the already grim numbers, the PSNI says there is still a large amount of under-reporting of this type of crime which, for many, remains both a taboo subject, a source of stigma and, therefore, Northern Ireland's hidden crime epidemic.
Commenting on the figures, a PSNI spokesman admitted there were many people in the province "who are suffering in silence" and should contact the police immediately.
"Officers understand that victims may have suffered abuse many times before calling the police or contacting other agencies and support groups for assistance and may feel reluctant to make a formal complaint," he said.
"This may not only be from fear of further attacks but also due to embarrassment, the potential loss of a partner, children's welfare, or financial concerns."
The spokesman added: "While more victims are coming forward and making the brave decision to tell police what has happened to them, there are still many who are suffering in silence."
The reported incidents alone dwarf those of a sectarian (2,261) or racist (1,220) nature.
The statistics were provided exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph by the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI) as part of its 'Vital Signs' project, an international research programme geared towards monitoring the quality of life in local communities.
They show that domestic abuse convictions have reached the highest level recorded since 2004/5. The 11,620 conviction rate of last year represented a 4.1% rise in the 11,160 cases of the previous year. Avila Kilmurray, CFNI director, said she was deeply concerned about the growing problem of domestic violence across the province.
"Domestic abuse, according to the statistics, is still on the increase in Northern Ireland – yet is rarely considered when we talk about transition from conflict and violence," she said.
The high levels of domestic abuse here are in sharp contrast to England and Wales, which have seen a reduction since 2004/5.
And according to the CFNI's data, police deal with over 400 domestic incidents and 100 domestic assaults over the course of an average week.
"Voluntary organisations such as Women's Aid have done sterling work over many years to both focus public attention and provide essential services for women and children," said Ms Kilmurray, adding: "The CFNI gave a seeding grant to enable the first Women's Aid refuge in Foyle to open its doors in 1979 and 34 years later the Women's Aid website still makes the point that a donation of £10 can provide a family with their first meal in a refuge.
"More than this, however, it can allow the family to enjoy that meal in safety."
The ongoing Vital Signs project focuses on themes such as crime and safety, housing, education and skills, environment, health and well-being and economic performance.
In its first report on the research by the Belfast Telegraph, it emerged that almost a fifth of people in Northern Ireland don't have a passport.
A Co Antrim grandmother aged 82 tells how her husband abused her when she was in her 30s
'At one stage he beat me so severely I was just inches away from death'
"One night, I walked down to the train station. I'd taken a beating. I had no money. The kids were in bed and I thought: 'I can't take this anymore. I'm going to throw myself under a train'.
But I'd missed the last one, and suddenly I realised I'd be leaving my children with no-one to look after them. I went back to the house and told him I was leaving him and taking the children.
"At one stage he beat me so severely that I was inches away from death.
"The psychological taunting was even worse; telling me I was stupid and imagining things. I started to doubt myself; that's the power people like that have over you.
"People ask why I didn't leave him; that's easier said than done. The police wanted to charge him, but he was the father of my children.
"Sometimes he twisted my long hair, almost pulling it out of the scalp. Once he pushed me into the bathroom and held my head under the hot tap.
"In those days, one never talked about what went on in the home. Even my mother told me I had to accept what was going on, so that's what I did.
"Couples didn't live together then, and it was only after we were married that I noticed he had a temper. He was a very selfish man who thought nothing of going away for the weekend with the lads. I had my first child and suddenly I was housebound, while he started living a single lifestyle.
"We didn't have much money and I used to panic. I told him he needed to bring money in for groceries and he'd start a screaming match.
"Once or twice when I had a meal sitting ready for him, he'd be in a temper and I'd get that thrown at me. He was very tall and strong and I'm quite small. He started to pull my hair or give me a slap across the back. It was simple things in the beginning; not things you'd say are terribly violent, but it ended up in a great deal of violence.
"He eased off after our second child. I broke up with him for several months, but I went back and we had another baby. I didn't want people to know how bad a man he was.
"After one savage beating I went into a comatose state and ended up in a mental hospital for a couple of months.
"The scars heal, but the emotional torture doesn't. Not to this day. I've never considered remarrying because of that. I finally got away. He tried to follow me but finally went his own way. I never heard from him again."
A 40-year-old mother tells how she finally spoke out after being beaten for three years
"I can't talk about the actual violence, it's too hard. I have had fears in the day and nightmares.
"It would happen without any warning, that was the scary thing. It was just like he snapped.
"Losing my home was traumatic for me. I left with nothing except a suitcase of clothes after 18 years of marriage but I knew I had to go because it was getting too dangerous for me. He was drinking a lot.
"If it had gone on much longer, he would have killed me.
"I went to live in a women's aid refuge for six months and then an aftercare house supported by women's aid for a further year, before I managed to secure social housing.
"When I was offered a house I had nothing except my clothes, towels and bedding. With the help of amazing, supportive friends, I managed to get basic furniture and electrical appliances and carpet my bedrooms. Without the support of these friends, I don't know how I would have had the strength to get through all the changes. I worked full time throughout, but in a low paid job, this meant I was not entitled to any benefits or grants to help me with moving costs or setting up costs.
"When I lived in women's aid, I got a lot of emotional support from my key worker that got me through the dark days and above all, I had a safe place to sleep at night.
"I want people to know that you do come out of this again.
"My message to anyone who thinks things are getting too bad at home is please pick up the phone and make a confidential appointment to talk to a women's aid support worker.
"The one thing that sticks in my mind and was the turning point for me was the day I first spoke to women's aid and I was asked the following four words "Do you feel safe?" I said out loud for the first time 'No, I don't'.
"That was when I knew I had to leave or I may end up dead. The fear of speaking about what is happening to you at home can be paralysing, that's why it is so hard for women to break the silence and tell someone.
"I've had counselling and I've had to learn to move on the best I can and rebuild my life and confidence, and take small steps to trust again."
In an emergency, call 999. However, if you are not comfortable with speaking to a police officer first, there are support groups such as Victim Support NI; Northern Ireland Women's Aid and the Samaritans who can give you help and advice. A 24 hour Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence helpline number can also be contacted on 0808 802 1414. Anyone suffering from domestic violence can also contact their local police on 0845 600 8000.
Stephen Cahoon (39) from Co Londonderry murdered a woman pregnant with his child. Jean Quigley (30) was killed at her home on July 26, 2008. The body of the mother-of-four was discovered strangled and bruised. Cahoon told a court that he strangled her to death after she had told him the child she was carrying was not his and that she was going to have an abortion. "That's when I saw red and I grabbed her by the throat," he said. Cahoon said he held for about 30 seconds and she "turned purple". In a statement, the PSNI welcomed the conviction of Cahoon, saying: "He is a dangerous sexual predator with a history of violence against women."