Canada’s domestic violence problem was already a crisis. COVID-19 has made the situation critical. Current calls to self-isolate have created optimal conditions for abuse according to several organizations.
Government and public health officials have urged us repeatedly to stay home, framing it as the safest place to be while we try to minimize the spread of COVID-19. But for many women (and some men), home isn’t safe at all.
“What we know is that during wars or natural disasters or pandemics, violence against women increases in our community. There’s more stressors on families at that time. Violence against women, domestic violence or sexual assault is about power and control, and when someone feels like they are losing power or not in power then violence can escalate,” Sara Casselman, the executive director of the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region (SASCWR) said.
As millions of Canadians across the country are being told to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19, SASCWR is worried that people are being put at risk.
“That tool of ‘stay in the house, don’t reach out to people’ can be used against someone. So it’s very common that someone who is in an abusive relationship will be told that they can’t see their friends and family. So this is just another excuse to isolate folks. It’s a very particular set of circumstances we are in,” Casselman said.
According to SASCWR, reaching out to get support during this time is even more challenging than usual for people experiencing domestic violence because they may not have the privacy to make a call.
SASCWR hasn’t seen the same increase in calls that the Waterloo Regional Police Service reported at the intake level. According to Casselman, this indicates that while people are having the same experience they are not able to reach out, or may think their services aren’t accessible at this time.
“…all our services are up and running. Our centre did not shut down. We are doing things differently because we need to for community safety in terms of the health of everyone,” Casselman said.
Their 24 hour support line, which has been open for over 30 years, 365 days a year has doubled in capacity to respond to calls coming in.
They also recognize that people may need more options to reach out in a safe and confidential way, so they have shifted to provide more easily accessible services to the community through online text chat, online video counselling, and phone support. Their regular and anti-human trafficking programs are also providing practical assistance to survivors through porch drop-offs.
Since isolation started, SASCWR has also moved their in-person support groups online via video calls, providing all attendees with a password for confidentiality and safety. To register for their May and June support groups visit their website here.
“The survivors who are accessing [our services] are gaining so much in terms of not feeling alone and not feeling isolated and having peer and counsellor support. So the different options we’ve provided allow for more opportunities to reach out. We actually have a lot of women who access our services that go for a walk when their counselling session is happening for privacy,” Casselman said.
They just launched a new feature on their website for online chat support which is currently available Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9am-4pm, and Wednesdays 8pm-12am (Midnight). It’s a free, anonymous, confidential and professional chat for survivors and their supporters.
“We are piloting the program and if we see there is a lot of interest we will expand those hours,” Casselman said.
The reality for survivors is that even before the pandemic hit, regionally SASCWR was dealing with a crisis situation in terms of the overwhelming demand for their services.
“Five years ago if there were over 40 survivors on our waiting list we would have said we were in crisis, and now we average 140 survivors. The need is huge,” Casselman said.
SASCWR says their teams are under extra pressure right now as survivors accessing their services require more frequent support.
“Just like everyone else, people are suffering right now with isolation and anxiety and depression related to what’s happening. This is a really difficult time and we know it is. And when you’re a survivor of trauma and you are already struggling it’s even harder,” Casselman said.
On top of the increase in demand for their services, SASCWR has had to cancel all their fundraising events for 2020.
“We have a really strong fundraising program to help meet the demand we have for services. Right now we are expecting to lose $100 thousand in fundraising revenue this year which we use to keep our services running.”
Casselman also spoke about The Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region who have room in their shelters:
“Usually the capacity is 90 to 100 per cent full. Right now it’s actually 50 to 60 per cent full because so many folks are trying to avoid communal living situations. So the shelters do have the capacity to take people and they have their 24 hour support line. That is still a resource. The shelters are taking a lot of precautions in terms of trying to keep people safe and not have a spread of COVID-19 … but that service is still there.”
Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region (WCSWR) shelters remain open for women and children who are experiencing domestic violence and are seeking safety as well. They are also continuing to provide outreach support to women in the community who are experiencing domestic violence but may not require shelter.
“At this time we have not seen an increase in requests for our services. We worry that it isn’t safe for women to reach out, so we have been working on new strategies to connect virtually with women who need support. We recently added an online chat feature to our website as an alternative to calling our 24/7 support line,” Jennifer Hutton, CEO of WCSWR said.
Since quarantine started, WCSWR have taken increased precautions to protect the safety of clients, staff and the larger community. Currently, they are only allowing essential visitors into the shelters, which means donation drop-offs are not permitted for the time being. They will still accept online donations and are grateful for any support the public can provide.
Casselman says we can all help support those experiencing domestic violence in our community.
“As neighbours and as family and friends, we have to be aware [when] violence against women in our community increases. We have to check on people that we care about…Just because we are not allowed to physically be close to people doesn’t mean that you can’t reach out to check on someone to see how they are doing.”
Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region (WCSWR) operates two emergency shelters for abused women and their children: Anselma House in Kitchener and Haven House in Cambridge. They also operate a regional Outreach Program.