The shadow pandemic: COVID-19 highlights need for victim support services

Although Canada’s COVID-19 case counts are dropping, the number of domestic violence cases remains the same.

A woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner approximately every six days, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation. 

More than 6,000 women and children stay in shelters on any given night because it isn’t safe at home. This was the case even before the pandemic. Since March 2020, that number has increased. 

In The Impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian Victim Services Statistics Canada report, 54 per cent of the surveyed victim services noticed an increase in the number of domestic violence victims they served between mid-March and early July 2020. 

As a result, women’s shelters in the province have been doing all they can to accommodate women and children who need a safe place to stay while following safety guidelines.

Capacity constraints

One of the biggest challenges for shelters has been capacity limits. 

Sistering, a Toronto-based multi-service agency for endangered women and trans people, is one of the many places faced with this constraint. 

Kathryn Glancy, the fund development officer at Sistering, said the agency used to work as a 24-hour drop-in service. She added that the location changed to function as a respite shelter a few weeks into the pandemic.

“Now we have 20 designated bed spaces. So, folks can’t really come in the middle of the night anymore,” Glancy said. “And it’s because of social distancing.”

Following government guidelines, like social distancing, led to limitations at Women’s Habitat in Etobicoke, Ont., as well. 

Shelter manager Alicia Whyte said the shelter also implemented a 14-day quarantine for new clients in addition to capacity cuts.

“Not only are [victims] leaving a high crisis situation … they’re now being put in a room where they can’t leave for 14 days,” Whyte said. 

“Before, people would come in, and they could take their time. If they wanted to be in the room in isolation, that was their choice. But I think being forced to be in isolation is a very different thing. So a lot of families chose to stay with the abuser.”

The shift to virtual support

As shelters reduced their new client intake, there was also a decrease in on-site staff. Many employees switched to remote work, which led to an upsurge in virtual assistance.

According to Statistics Canada, 73 per cent of the surveyed victim services reported a rise in phone usage, and 58 per cent noticed an increase in their use of email. 

Diane Dickson-Kailan, president of the board of directors at The Denise House in Oshawa, Ont., said the shelter had the same experience.

“We certainly had a lot of crisis calls,” she said. “Things changed for the women because they were stuck at home … and so their world became even smaller than it was.” 

Whyte said Women’s Habitat encountered the opposite scenario. 

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we certainly recognized — within the whole sector — that the phones were very silent,” she said. 

“We discovered in the long run that was because they’re in the house with their abuser. They don’t have the opportunity or the space to be able to have a crisis call.”

The federal government gave $40 million to women’s shelters in May 2020 to address the need for victim support services during the pandemic. This was followed by an additional $50 million in October.

Dickson-Kailan said she felt satisfied with the provincial government’s pandemic pay. She also said COVID-19 didn’t impact The Denise House’s pre-existing funds.

“Things just sort of continued at a steady flow,” she said. “But a big portion of [funding] to meet our shortfalls comes from our very, very generous community.”

Sistering received a large number of donations as well, Glancy said.

“There was a huge increase of support around March and April [2020], which is amazing,” she said. 

“The problem is, it’s now a year and a half later, and COVID is still here … We still need a lot of that support.”

Glancy said the community also provided physical donations such as clothing and personal care items. 

Lack of resources continues to be an issue

“Winter was a really, really big struggle this year. And I’m a little scared for winter coming up,” she said. 

Glancy added there was an increase of people in the neighbourhood who went to the centre for help in freezing winter temperatures. She attributed their busier-than-usual winter season to the lack of jobs caused by COVID-19. 

“They’re coming by with shoes with holes in them. It’s really, really hard to watch,” she said.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation lists job loss as one of the many risk factors for women experiencing gender-based violence. 

That, along with reduced income, food insecurity and fears about contracting the virus all act as “pandemic-related stressors” which put already at-risk women in even more danger.

Organizations such as the Canadian Women’s FoundationWomen’s Shelters Canada and the Ending Violence Association of Canada provide information about gender-based violence and explain how to help eradicate the country’s ever-growing problem. 

Ontario also has several helplines available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Glancy, Whyte and Dickson-Kailan said they want at-risk women to know they are never alone.

“Continue to try to reach out when it’s safe,” Whyte said. “I think we often forget how much courage and strength [it] takes to pick up the phone … But just know we’re here.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *