A crisis like COVID-19 means an increase in domestic violence. Supports like shelters are still open for women needing to flee violent situations and there’s still a duty to report those cases in which a child is being abused or neglected. But communities can still support women and children, even while practicing social isolation. Photo: Kelly Sikkema/ Unsplash.

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Staying home is keeping many of us safe from Covid-19, but it’s also increasing the risk of violence against women and children who are now at home more often with abusers.

Rates of domestic violence have spiked across the world in countries where there are lockdowns or where social isolation measures are in place. According to Wan Fei, the founder of an anti-domestic violence non-profit in Jingzhou, a city in Hubei Province, at one police station in the city, the rates of domestic violence were three times higher this February than rates in February 2019.

In a survey sent by Women’s Safety NSW to 400 frontline workers across New South Wales, Australia, 40% of workers reported increases in pleas for help, while 70% said current cases were becoming more complex.

France’s interior minister says cases of domestic violence have increased by 30% since the country locked down on March 17. In Paris, cases of domestic violence were up by 36%.

Still, there are ways to keep women and children safe and connected, even as most of us stay at home.

Neighbours, Friends, and Families (NFF) is a public education campaign that helps raise awareness of the signs of abuse so those closest to women who might be abused can help keep them safe. NFF offers 150 campaigns across Ontario, including those that are culturally diverse. It also has free online training to teach people how to recognize the signs of abuse.

The program did some work in Nova Scotia at least 10 years ago. Its researchers are based at the University of Western Ontario and they work with employers on how they can help assist employees facing abuse. Barb MacQuarrie is the community director at the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women & Children at the university.

MacQuarrie says it’s important to stay connected with the women who may be experiencing abuse at home. That’s tougher now since we are all practicing social isolation or social distancing. Still, MacQuarrie says we can stay connected through social media or phone calls.

Our whole message is helping people feel less isolated and we need to do what we can to reach out to them. This is a whole new barrier for us.

Isolation is already an issue facing those women being abused. Anything and all we can do to break through that will increase safety. Just because we don’t have the same face-to-face contact anymore, we still need to stay connected.

MacQuarrie says domestic violence does increase during times of crisis like natural disasters. A crisis like Covid-19 means abusers don’t have the control over their victims.

Obviously, these are uncertain times and none of us have control, so someone who struggles with control can lash out at someone.

For women in situations of domestic violence, even using the phone can be dangerous.

It will be harder to have privacy and to get away.

MacQuarrie suggests people who stay in touch with these women use codes rather than talk specifically about situations. Phrases like, “it’s going to storm tomorrow” or “I’m picking up milk at the store” can be signals between a woman who’s being abused and someone who wants to help. Only those people talking will understand those codes.

MacQuarrie says shelters for these women may be struggling now, but they are still open to women who need them. (On Friday, the province announced $200,000 in support to transition houses.) MacQuarrie says one of the best ways to support women experiencing domestic violence now is to support local shelters.

The last thing I don’t want people to think is they are not available. That’s simply not true. They may need help getting the message out.

Transition houses in Nova Scotia are still operating for women in crisis while staff are following protocols from public health. No one at Bryony House in Halifax, the Cape Breton Transition House Association, or the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia, which represents several shelters across the province, returned calls from the Examiner, but there are messages left on Facebook pages about services. All of the shelters under the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia umbrella are still operating and providing services to women. According to its post on its Facebook page, all of its transition houses face increased costs because of the need for more staff and cleaning and sanitizing products. Rural communities have a greater shortage of such supplies. Financial donations are welcome.

Bryony House is still answering its distress line and offering shelter to those women experiencing intimate partner violence. It’s also using social distancing and self-isolation practices that are aligned with current public and safety guidelines.

The Cape Breton Transition House Association says it’s not accepting donations of clothing, food, or toys to its shelter as it is practicing social distancing. Its outreach programs and support groups are on hold, but staff are contacting clients through phone calls and teleconferencing. The shelter is still open and working under its pandemic plan, but the Association is screening for the virus with new admissions.

MacQuarrie adds that by following public health protocols about social distancing, we’re also helping first responders, who will have to take calls when women need to flee situations of domestic violence.

Everyone in a family is at risk of violence in a crisis like COVID-19. Lynette MacLeod, a spokesperson with the Department of Community Services, says as always there’s a duty to report if you suspect a child is being abused or neglected. Calls can be made directly to the department or to  1-866-922-2434. Says MacLeod via email:

Child protection remains an essential service, and all Community Services offices are operational. Our partners — like Family Resources Centres, Boys and Girls Clubs, and Youth Outreach programs — remain available across the province to provide prevention and intervention supports through online and phone contact, virtual supports, and provision of household and personal supplies as needed. Another excellent resource for youth in need of support is the Kids Help Phone, 1-800-668-6868, which is available 24/7 via phone or text.

Alec Stratford, the executive director and registrar with the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, says families are often resilient and develop coping mechanisms and safe communication. But those skills are challenged in a crisis, so they are looking for new ways to cope.

That puts a lot of stress on families and kids who are confined in their homes. There’s a lot of adaptation and flexibility on the ground.

Stratford says social workers are keeping in touch with clients through phone calls and telework, all of which he says were in place before the COVID-19 crisis. Stratford says one of the biggest concerns for families and the increase of family violence is the loss of income many families are experiencing now and the lack of labour standards around sick leave and other supports. Stratford says those loss of supports can be challenging for families who are now all at home together. Add to that the lack of other supports and safe spaces like daycares and schools, which are safe spaces for children who face abuse and neglect at home.

Can you imagine all the stress a family is facing in this?

If you see someone struggling, resist the urge to judge. Find some empathy and ask what you can do to help. Talk on the phone. Get groceries for them. We have to become more compassionate and empathetic to each other.

MacQuarrie agrees.

I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of that human contact. Whatever we can do to make sure they know there is an actual caring person there, let’s do that. We’re all in this together.


Neighbours, Friends and Families

Bryony House

Transition House Association of Nova Scotia

Alice House

Cape Breton Transition House Association

Kids Help Phone (available by phone or text) — 1-800-668-6868

Department of Community Services, Child Abuse reporting — Phone: 902-742-0700; after business hours — 1-866-922-2434

Adsum House for Women and Children

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Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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