The recent worldwide outbreak of COVID-19 has brought about something that most of us have never seen before: a near complete shut-down of daily life as we know it. Schools and daycare centres have been shuttered; restaurants, nightclubs, concert halls, and other businesses have been forced to close their doors; some companies are having employees work from home, while others have laid off workers indefinitely. While these closures are necessary in order to stop a devastating spread of this virus, there is a stark and equally devastating side effect to this reality that many people know nothing about: an increase in family violence. In many countries, including the majority of North American cities, all but essential services are closed for the time-being, with new and strict restrictions in place for people to be able to obtain the necessities: groceries, medication, gas, or access to banking and medical care.
DV Rates Rise During Crisis
Research indicates that during times of crisis, such as our current one, rates of child abuse and domestic violence tend to increase. The stress of the situation, potential job loss and economic uncertainty, and being confined to the home in close quarters escalate the risk of violence and have many shelters and local resource centres responding to more than their average calls. Activists in China have reported that domestic violence cases rose dramatically across the country as people were quarantined in their homes. Experts in Canada agree the conditions created by the pandemic make those in vulnerable situations are even more susceptible to violence or an increase in the level of violence.
The Challenge to Continue Providing Support and Services
At the same time as they are called upon to meet increasing needs of those vulnerable to domestic violence, shelters face their own challenges: people living in close proximity to each other, the need to protect residents and staff from exposure to the corona virus and the potential of reduced workforces if staff need to self-isolate. Amidst the real and ongoing challenges, some spokespeople for shelters from across the country are reassuring the public that shelters are continuing to operate and that they will adapt services as necessary while remaining available to those who need their services. Others are outlining the challenges which include more women needing sanctuary, the need to isolate anyone showing symptoms of covid-19 and the possibility of staff becoming sick themselves.
In a shift from our usual focus of holding abusers accountable for their behaviour, some shelters and other domestic violence experts have begun to offer tips on how to de-escalate arguments and techniques to limit contact with an abuser in the house, as well as tips for self-care.
Social Distancing Increases Isolation
We also need to take into consideration the lack of other supports that women and children experiencing abuse may suddenly lose during this current crisis.
For many victims of domestic violence, work is an essential refugee. It is the one place where many survivors feel a sense of safety away from their abusive partners; where they have the ability to access work supports or a safe place to make phone calls to shelters, the police or lawyers. Staying home from work deprives survivors of this social connection and in many cases, actual physical safety, leaving them behind closed doors with an abusive partner.
Restrictions on being able to interact with extended family or friends can also increase isolation in this time of crisis and thereby increase a woman’s risk of serious harm. Isolation is a fundamental dynamic of abuse. Perpetrators of domestic violence attempt to isolate victims, cutting off their support systems and relationships with coworkers, friends or family. Not being able to go to work or connect with others can most definitely increase victims’ vulnerability.
We have seen many businesses forced to close, even temporarily, during this time. As a result, workers are finding themselves being laid off. We know that financial barriers are all too common when it comes to a woman being able to leave an abusive relationship, particularly if there are children involved. During this time of economic hardship, if a woman who is experiencing violence finds they have suddenly lost their job and income, it will become even harder to leave the abuser. Therefore, coronavirus can lead to people becoming trapped in abusive relationships, both because of isolation means as well as the economic impacts and downfalls.
Likewise, schools can be a place of refugee for children and youth who are experiencing or witnessing violence in their own home. And they provide important associated social supports and connections. With schools closed across the country, children who live in abusive homes will feel the same effects as their parents who can’t go to work, a loss of support, and increased risk of abuse.
What is Ontario Doing to Help?
This current crisis poses many potential issues for women’s shelters. The provincial government is working alongside shelters and centres to help ensure women can receive the support they need. The federal government has announced that it will provide up to $50 million dollars for women women’s shelters and sexual assault centres to help manage or prevent an outbreak in their facilities.
The Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses have released a communique with the following information:
Communication lines are being kept open between the shelters, their associations, and the government to find new strategies, develop resources and build a collective capacity to address this crisis together.
All violence against women shelters in Ontario have received directives from Public Health to create and implement screening plans. Each shelter in Ontario offer a range of services responding to the unique needs of their communities, that will need to reflect a new and changing context over the coming weeks. Shelters will continue to receive the advice of Public Health of Canada, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Children, Community & Social Services and Local Public Health Units as we work through these unprecedented times and do our best to keep women and their children safe in Ontario.
Shelters may require support from their community over the coming weeks through donations of essential items to assist in their day to day operations. Please visit sheltersafe.ca to find the contact information for the shelter in or nearest to your community to find out how you can support them.
If you’re seeking safety from a harmful situation, please reach out to your local Violence Against Women Shelter by visiting sheltersafe.ca or call 911 if you’re in immediate danger.
To talk with someone immediately about your safety needs and safety planning you can also contact confidential and anonymous provincial crisis lines.