Domestic violence calls surge during coronavirus pandemic

By Faiza Amin

As millions of Canadians across the country are being told to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19, some are worried that it’s putting them at risk of another problem, one that experts say is also a pandemic.

Domestic violence organizations across Ontario are raising concern over the increase in calls shelters have been receiving in the last few weeks, while others are worried that fewer women are calling them because the pandemic has created barriers to accessing services.

According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF), a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner every six days.

Currently, over 17,000 women and children go through the shelter system in the province, according to the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH), who adds that one in three will experience violence in their lifetime.

“Gender-based violence is a pandemic that has never really truly been dealt with,” said Marlene Ham, the Executive Director of OAITH. “We know that we’re already dealing with shelters that can be at capacity or over capacity, so that’s our fear. We want to respond to the existing issue of gender-based violence and respond to COVID-19.”

Since the virus started spreading, OAITH, which represents over 70 shelters across Ontario, states that 20 percent of their organizations have experienced an increase in calls.

Women and their children are now bound to the same homes where their abusers also live, with very limited options to leave the house to escape and few opportunities to call domestic violence shelters.

“We’re navigating the reality that home isn’t safe for many survivors of violence,” said Ham. “The crisis line that shelters are offering and the lines that are operating provincially, are providing a broad range of supports at this point, as a way to connect to women. But, we also know that reaching out to a crisis line isn’t always going to be a possibility right now.”

One of the shelters seeing a rise in clients is Nisa Homes, a transitional home for Muslim and immigrant women and children. They say calls have doubled these last few weeks.

The organization, which has roots in several GTA cities, Windsor and British Columbia, typically gets 200 calls on a weekly basis from women who are looking to get connected to resources. Since the outbreak, that number has doubled to 400.

In a recent situation, Yasmine Youssef, the organization’s National Manager, said they acted quickly to remove a woman whose husband was threatening to kill her. In another situation, Youssef said an abusive partner kicked out his wife out of the home because he thought she would give him the virus.

Because space is limited, the organization said hotels have been used to temporarily shelter women and children who require immediate housing, a last resort that has been costly.

“It’s slowly starting to happen, but we know it’s going to hit us hard soon unfortunately,” Youssef said. “We anticipate that our demand is going to be higher, and so obviously our cost is going to be higher. That’s what’s scary, because we don’t want to get to a point where we’re turning people away because we don’t have the money.”

Anyone working with domestic violence victims and survivors knows that the shelter systems are operating at capacity on a nightly basis. The CWF states, in any given night, about 300 women and children are turned away because there are no beds. It is expected that the outbreak will make things worse.

In these times, Canada has oftentimes looked to other countries to get a better idea of the advanced impacts of COVID-19, that has also been the case for domestic violence shelters who are anticipating the virus will have serious impacts on gender-based violence.

“We’re seeing reports coming out of China, Italy and other countries that the number of domestic violence cases have tripled since the pandemic started,” Youssef said. “We know it’s definitely affecting women that are [experiencing] abuse very heavily, because now the resources are very limited, and they’re stuck at home with their abuser 24/7.”

Increase in police calls

CityNews reached out to a number of police forces across the GTA to ask whether or not they’ve been seeing an increase in domestic violence calls.

York Regional Police say some incidents have been on the rise since COVID-19, including domestic incidents, which grew by 22 percent. In the last 30 days, a police spokesperson said, their offices have responded to nearly 700 domestic incidents.

Durham Region said domestic-related calls have increased by 14 per cent year-to-date, and there was a two per cent increase in the month of March. Sexual assault calls have also increased by 22 percent year-to-date.

In Peel Region, there were 1021 intimate partner occurrences between March 1 to April 6. Last year, that number was 1024.

Toronto police say they have seen a small drop in their numbers since social distancing measures went to effect in March. They saw a total of 2,645 domestic incident calls between Feb. 16 and March 29.

Despite this data, shelter workers say the numbers don’t paint the full picture of how big this problem is, because the majority of domestic violence victims and survivors don’t call police.

“Our fear is that there are a lot of women who are experiencing violence in their home and they may not be accessing any services or supports,” Ham said. “We really want women to know that those services and supports are available, and there are many entry points to getting the services they need.”

A Stats Canada report found that 10 per cent of women are very or extremely concerned about violence in the home during the COVID-19 pandemic

Government responses

Both federal and provincial governments have announced COVID-19 measures to support domestic violence shelters.

Parliament approved a financial aid package, committing some $200 million to help shelters across the country, including those who service women and children fleeing domestic violence.

It includes $26 million for Women’s Shelters Canada to distribute to shelters and another $4 million for Canadian Women’s Foundation to distribute to sexual assault centres across the country. Eligible organizations are being contacted directly, according to the government.

Another $10 million will go to Indigenous Services Canada’s network of 46 emergency shelters on reserves to support Indigenous women and children fleeing violence. The funds will go directly to the shelters and provide them with additional operational funding.

The Ministry of Women and Gender Equality said they are working with provincial counterparts, as well as Women’s Shelters Canada and the Canadian Women’s Foundation, to identify which women’s shelters and sexual assault centres will be eligible for funding and “to ensure coordinated approaches to addressing domestic violence during the outbreak.”

Just recently, Ontario announced an emergency payment of $2.7 million to support victims of domestic violence other crimes during the pandemic.

The Attorney General cited a surge in domestic violence, reported by front-line victim services organizations. The government’s one-time emergency payment will go to more than 50 community agencies across Ontario, including indigenous organizations and groups based in rural areas.

Though this is welcomed news, the shelters have not yet received this funding.

The Ministry of the Attorney General tells CityNews some organizations will see their one-time emergency payment deposited as early as next week. The ministry said Victim Crisis Assistance Ontario service providers all received their agreements on April 6 and flow of the payment to the organizations needs a few extra administrative steps before it can be deposited.

Once the agreements are signed, the funding will be passed on.

In additional to the emergency funding, The Ministry of Children’s and Women’s Issues says they have also announced a $40M Residential Relief Fund to help address increased residential costs at organizations, including shelters that help women fleeing domestic violence.

“It’s really important that they get that out as quickly as they can because we’re sort of dealing with two issues right now, and we want to ensure that we don’t serve fewer women as a result of COVID-19,” Ham said. “We anticipate that we’re actually going to need to serve more women as a result of COVID-19.”

“We are here for you”

As the pandemic continues to create challenging times for Canadians from coast to coast, shelters have been increasing their presence online and in-person.

One of those shelters, is Halton Women’s Place, who unlike Nisa Homes, has seen a decrease in calls from women. That is a source of concern for the shelter’s Manager of Development and Communications.

“We know that the surge is going to come, this is the calm before the storm,” Carm Bozzo said. “As self-isolation and quarantine continues, women will reach out and we’re going to see our numbers sky rocket.”

Bozzo said they are taking steps now, in anticipation of the increase in calls they say will require an all-hands-on-deck approach. They’ve began safely transitioning women, who are ready for the next step, to homes in the community in an effort to make more room in their shelters.

The spread of the virus is also changing how they and other shelters are providing services.

From cleaning to the closure of certain in-person activities, steps have been taken to encourage the self-isolation of all clients and staff members.

Shelters, including both Halton Women’s Place and Nisa homes, are also incorporating measures in the event an outbreak does occur. Both groups have alternative shelters spaces secured.

“We’re going by the recommendations of public health, to make sure our staff and clients remain healthy,” Bozzo said. “We will work with all women who call our crisis lines and need that support, and work with them so that they remain safe.”

As the pandemic is uniting Canadians from all around the country, shelter workers are asking family, friends, neighbours and community members to check-in on one another, particularly those who don’t have access support tools.

“They might need you in different ways because those people might not be able to access supports, given that our changing landscape has really shifted,” Hamm said. “We have to find some new and creative ways to be able to support survivors of gender-based violence.”

The Public Education Department at Halton Women’s Place also launched an educational initiative to increase their awareness and engage the community to show support for one another.

They’re asking people to post a message of what love and respect means to them, either using chalk on their driveway, placing a poster in their window, or using social media with the hashtag #ChalkAboutLove.

“It also will let women and kids know that we know that they’re out there, we’re thinking of them, and we want them to support and help them in any way we can,” Bozzo said. “We know that this is not a time where abuse stops or ends, it never does.”

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Assaulted Women’s Helpline Crisis Line here:

Toll-free at 1-866-863-0511

Toll-free TTY: 1-866-863-7868

Text #SAFE (#7233): On Rogers, Fido, Bell, or Telus Mobile

Connect to resources: Shelter Safe

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