COVID-19 could be making domestic violence victims less likely to come forward in Mississauga

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When the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading, governments around the world reacted aggressively by enforcing state, province and country-wide lockdowns that effectively confined people to their homes indefinitely. 

While many argue that the ongoing lockdowns—drastic and draconian though they may be—are the only life and health care system-saving tool in the toolbox at this juncture, experts have warned that domestic violence incidents will continue to rise for as long as victims are confined to close quarters with their abusers.

Worldwide, reports of familial and intimate partner violence have risen exponentially and police services throughout Canada have reported an increase in calls. The Canadian government, expecting to see a spike in domestic violence, invested $40 million in women’s shelters and sexual assault centres across the country. The government also pledged to provide $10 million for emergency shelters for Indigenous women and children fleeing violence. 

The province of Ontario also acted to protect vulnerable residents, pledging to allocate $200 million in relief funding for shelters, food banks, emergency services, charities and non-profits.

But while some GTA police services have reported an uptick in domestic violence-related calls, shelters and police in Peel—the region made up of Brampton, Mississauga, and Caledon—say they haven't seen a significant increase in calls.

While that's good news on its face, experts caution that violence could still be happening—and happening more frequently—regardless of call volume. 

"Not only here, but across the province, shelters and crisis lines are seeing a difference in the number of calls. Some crisis lines are seeing an increase and some of us are not seeing an increase. That's a concern because we wonder if that's because it's not safe for women to reach us," says Sharon Floyd, executive director of Interim Place, an organization that operates two shelters that serve Peel-area women and their children.

"If a woman is at home, she can't reach out without alerting her abusive partner. She's under closer surveillance."

When asked if police are seeing a difference in what types of crimes are being reported, a Peel Regional Police spokesperson said that the service cannot yet say whether changes in call volume are related to the pandemic. 

"In regards to call volume, we have not had a discernible reduction in the number of calls we are receiving," Cst. Akhil Mooken, a public and media relations officer with Peel Regional Police, told insauga.com in an email. 

"The safety of our community will always be one of the highest priorities for Peel Regional Police and all calls for service are being responded to, based on the seriousness of the call, and will continue despite the pandemic."

When asked if Peel police are noticing a change in domestic violence-related calls, in particular, Mooken said it's too early to release such data.

"At this time we are not releasing statistics on crime as the numbers cannot be confirmed to have a direct relationship to COVID-19." 

Numbers from nearby police services also indicate that domestic violence-related calls might not be on the rise across the board just yet. 

Halton Region Police, the service that patrols Oakville, Burlington, Milton and Halton Hills, recently announced that in March 2020, officers responded to 276 calls related to intimate partner violence and laid 121 charges. 

Halton police say that in March 2019, officers responded to 289 calls related to intimate partner violence and laid 150 charges.

The story is different in the York region, where police say domestic violence-related incidents are up 22 per cent year-over-year. 

"We believe it's purely from the number of people home and in tight quarters and a real change in everyday routines and some people clearly aren't managing it well," Sgt. Andy Pattenden told the Canadian Press.

Concerns about domestic violence increasing amid the pandemic are pressing and real, especially since data from the Canadian Women's Foundation indicates that a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner every six days in non-COVID times. 

"We're not seeing a significant increase [in calls] as of late, but our team is quite busy supporting women in the community differently from how they did pre-COVID-19," Floyd says. 

"We believe there will be an increase in the number of calls we receive as this situation continues, but that's not currently our situation."

Floyd says that even without COVID, violence against women is a serious problem in the community and that both shelters are currently at capacity—a fact that shouldn't deter women from calling, as Interim Place can still find lodgings for those in need. 

While COVID-19 has changed how Interim Place operates, it's not eliminating or reducing its services.

"We're providing phone calls and virtual counselling support for women," Floyd says, adding that the organization's 24/7 crisis line, shelters, and support services will continue to operate without disruption over the course of the pandemic.

"Our crisis line is still operating 24/7, but we also have a community support outreach team that connects with women through our central intake line, so women can call that intake line and then a counsellor will follow up with them."

But while 24-hour support is available, the shelter has been forced to make changes. According to Interim Place's website, community and client meetings are now conducted over the phone or online. In-person groups and workshops have been suspended, and non-essential visitors—including tradespeople and outside service providers—are not permitted to access the premises.

To help protect staff and clients from the novel coronavirus, women accessing Interim Place's shelter services are screened using the COVID-19 assessment tool developed by the Ontario Ministry of Health.

Floyd says that if a woman tests positive and needs to isolate (or self-monitor after potential exposure), the shelter provides alternate space for her. 

Instead of finding comfort in the steadiness of the shelter's call volume during this incredibly challenging time, Floyd says she's worried that women who need to leave abusive situations are afraid to call for help.

"I think that's something we need to be talking about and understand. Pre-self isolation, women could come up with alternatives to make contact [with shelters]. They could say they were going to work or dropping the children off at school or an activity, but schools and workplaces are closed," Floyd says. 

"Women are often primary caregivers and they're at home right now helping their children with their schooling, so they might not be able to talk about what's happening in their homes. We need to be much more creative around how safety planning looks for some women." 

Floyd says Interim Place will make a safety plan based on a woman's unique circumstances. 

"The counsellor can tailor support to that woman's experience," Floyd says. 

Another factor that could be putting vulnerable women and children at even more risk than usual is the overwhelming stress of the situation. At a time when most people feel powerless, those who already lack coping skills might be more likely to lash out at others in their household.

"Part of the challenge is that families are dealing with many things that they weren't dealing with before, such as childcare loss and job loss. If people can't deal with those stressors and challenges and they do not respect their partners, they could try to exude power over the people they can control." 

Floyd says she's pleased with the additional support shelters across the country have gotten from all levels of government, especially since costs are increasing due to additional pandemic-related precautions.  

"Resources are very much needed. We are operating a 24-hour space for women and the costs of operating the space have gone up, including staffing costs because of the support we're providing and the screenings we need to do," Floyd says, adding that the shelter has had to make changes to allow for physical distancing. 

While Floyd is happy that shelters are receiving increased support to help them weather the crisis, she says a national violence against women strategy needs to be implemented and maintained after the pandemic ends. 

"We needed to put things in place before, and this is magnifying inequalities. Women were experiencing high levels of violence already, and that lack of equity and that lack of safety, it's still there and it's increased. Any strategy to keep women safe, with or without COVID-19, will be important. 

Floyd says that even though the pandemic has made life significantly more difficult for everyone, women and children living in Interim Place have still been able to transition out of the shelter system when able. 

"Women are still able to find housing and some are still moving onto new housing. That work is still happening. It's not as easy, however, as some landlords might not be renting right now because of the crisis."

Regardless of challenges, Floyd says Interim Place is just as accessible—and able to help—as ever. 

"We have strategies and partnerships to help women find the help and space they need if they need to leave their home." 

Floyd also says it's important to acknowledge—especially at a time when people are being ordered to stay home and perhaps even shamed for simply lingering in a park or outdoor setting—that home is not a safe place for many women and children.

"We cannot assume that home is a safe place for a woman to be at this time. We need to understand that violence against women is a reality for many women in our community. We need to be careful in terms of understanding what is safe for women in our community. Some women might take a chance of getting COVID-19 over staying in their home and maybe risking death." 

Anyone in need of help can call Interim Place's 24-hour crisis line at 905-403-0864. People with hearing or speech impairments can use a TTY device and dial 905-403-0453. 

To learn more about Interim Place, click here.

To find help anywhere in Canada, click here.  

With files from The Canadian Press

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