Canada’s Domestic Violence Problem Was Already Critical. COVID-19 is Making It Worse

Current calls for us all to stay home create prime conditions for abuse, but gender-based violence was already an emergency.

An image of the hand sign that the Canadian Women's Foundation is encouraging people in abusive domestic situations to use this hand signal in video calls if they need help during the pandemic.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation is encouraging people in abusive domestic situations to use this hand signal in video calls if they need help during the pandemic.

In late March, a few weeks after COVID-19 shuttered all schools and non-essential businesses, Pamela Cross and her team heard from a woman in dire need of help. Cross is the legal director of Luke’s Place, an Ontario not-for-profit organization that helps abused women dealing with custody and access issues. The woman’s ex-partner was trying to use the pandemic as an excuse to violate a court-mandated custody order.

According to a legal separation agreement, the former couple’s child was to be passed between them safely at a local police station. After two weeks with the father, it was time for the child to head back to mom’s. But the woman’s ex refused to go to the police station, citing the risk of COVID-19. Also, she told Luke’s Place staff, he just didn’t “feel like” sending their child back. If she wanted a safe return, she’d have to come to his place for pickup instead.

“Her case was deemed urgent,” Cross says, and a virtual family court hearing to resolve the situation was set up for this week. Luke’s Place helped her set up a plan for the interim, as she feared that going directly to his home would have put her in danger.

Stay home, governments and public health officials say, framing it as the safest place to be right now, as we all try to avoid a highly infectious coronavirus. But for many women (and a scant minority of men), home isn’t safe at all. Domestic violence has become as worldwide a pandemic as COVID-19 itself: in early April, the United Nations reported a “horrifying global surge.”According to Statistics Canada just reported that one in 10 women are currently very or extremely worried about violence in the home, and Canadian police forces are reporting a rise in domestic violence calls.

At least three Canadian women have been murdered since societal isolation started, seemingly by the men they lived with: 33-year-old mother Audrey Hopkinson of Brockville, Ont.; a 41-year-old woman near Sundre, Alta.; and Tracy MacKenzie of Hammond Plains, N.S. The first two alleged assailants killed themselves, while Stephen Alexander Beckett has been charged with premeditating MacKenzie’s murder. According to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, an average of nine women were killed in the month of March in the years 2016 to 2019. Three women dead in a matter of days is a worrisome spike.

It’s clear that current calls for us all to stay home create prime conditions for abuse. Job losses and children at home combine to form a “perfect storm,” says Cross, and perpetrators no longer need to put effort into meticulously isolating their victims. The reality is, though, that the pandemic is only highlighting an existing problem. Gender-based violence was already a critical emergency in this country—COVID-19 is causing cracks exactly at the pressure points that advocates have long pointed out, and that governments have long failed to meaningfully address.

“This is a real pressure cooker for so many women living in these situations,” says Lise Martin, the director of Women’s Shelters Canada. “They’re basically stuck between two pandemics.” ShelterSafe.ca, a website that maps out shelter locations nationwide, saw its web traffic double this March over last.

On April 4, the federal government announced $26 million in emergency funding for women’s shelters. Martin’s organization is tasked with distributing $20.5 million of that money to 450 eligible shelters in every province other than Quebec, which will allot the $5.5 million left over (as well, the Canadian Women’s Foundation will handle another $4 million going to sexual assault centres). By April 13, 172 qualifying shelters had registered: money was most commonly requested for staffing, figuring out overflow accommodations in places such as hotels or empty apartments and cleaning supplies to keep up with strict new sanitation guidelines.

Martin says money should be distributed within the next few days. She also acknowledged these primary needs sounded eerily familiar. Capacity has long been a problem, a well documented one. A May 2019 report from Women’s Shelters Canada found that four in 10 women’s shelters were operating at capacity “almost always.” It also found that 74 percent of shelters allow women to overstay provincial guidelines because they have nowhere else to go–read, no access to affordable housing. The increased need for cleaning supplies is new, but related: COVID-related sanitation requirements have meant restricting common areas to one family at a time, and turning shared rooms into single family bedrooms.

For me, this is all deja vu. A few years ago, I interviewed JoAnne Brooks, the executive director of the sexual assault centre in Renfrew County, outside of Ottawa. I was writing a story for Chatelaine on Basil Borutski, who killed three ex-girlfriends in the rural area on a single day in September 2015 (he was eventually sentenced to life in prison). I checked in with Brooks this week and she, too, has the same issues she told me about then, only ramped up by pandemic anxiety. Her staff are still coping with high-stress jobs on low pay, and she’s worried about their resilience. Hugs and even close, intimate conversations are now out of bounds, shelter staff across Canada report. Shelters have also always been desperate for staff that is properly paid, not burnt out, and not forced to chase donations and government grants instead of working with clients.

In Manitoba, Deena Brock is concerned about shelters that are oddly under-capacity, or even empty. As provincial coordinator for the Manitoba Association of Women’s Shelters, Brock wonders if it has anything to do with newly limited transportation options: there are currently no buses and few taxi services servicing rural Manitoba, and pandemic safety protocols restrict staff from picking women up in their own cars. “I believe—and I’m just speculating—that women and men who are in abusive situations, maybe [they’re] listening to that call to stay home,” says Brock.

Listen to Sarah Boesveld discuss domestic violence and COVID-19 on the Big Story podcast.

It’s tricky to navigate public messaging that is at odds with what advocates believe will keep women safe, especially when resources were stretched already. “Women shouldn’t have to choose between dealing with gender-based violence in their lives and safety issues as it relates to COVID-19,” says Marlene Ham, the executive director of the Ontario Association of Interval & Transition Houses. “That’s a terrible situation for survivors to be in and for violence against women shelters to be in.”

Like the rest of us, Canada’s domestic violence workers are adjusting to new ways of doing their jobs. Luke’s Place has ramped up access to its virtual legal clinic, and has been heartened by the number of family lawyers donating their time. Shelter staff are doing outreach by phone, text, email, video chat—whatever their clients have okayed as safe, Ham says. The Canadian Women’s Foundation created a hand signal they’re encouraging survivors to use during video chats to let others know they need help.

Communities are taking care of each other, too—the GoFundMe for Audrey Hopkinson’s children (which I donated to) has surpassed its goal. Canadians are coming up with creative ways to support their local shelters, like sending over pizzas, or having independent booksellers deliver children’s books. Along with seniors and those living alone, Ham says women in potentially abusive situations need to be checked up on during COVID-19. “There may be situations where women are not able or not ready to reach out to formal services,” she says. “That informal support network is critically important right now.”

After this emergency runs its course, Canada will eventually re-emerge into a post-pandemic world. COVID-19 will undoubtedly change us: does that include funding shelters properly and valuing the essential frontline workers who keep them running? Will we make sure that, in the future, those shelters are not treated as long-term housing, but emergency waystations on the way to better things?

We can find permanent, structural public solutions to the domestic violence issues that have been clearly revealed as deep wounds. Or, we can go back to treating the issue as a private matter, and keep slapping on the Band-Aids.

Correction: this piece has been edited to correct the number of shelters being allotted money through Women’s Shelters Canada. It is 450 shelters, not 575 as previously stated. Shelters in Quebec are receiving money through another organization.

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