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Calgary Women’s Shelter: COVID-19 isolation presents a challenge for victims of family violence

The Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter wants the public to know that being in coronavirus isolation doesn’t have to mean being alone.

Since the COVID 19 pandemic was announced in early March, The Women’s Shelter has introduced new protocols to help tackle the challenges brought on by the virus.  

With the introduction of text and email options to their helpline, Executive Director Kim Ruse said victims of family violence have a better chance of successfully reaching out during the challenge of self-isolation.

 “Because of social distancing, it’s tougher for women to get out and make a phone call,” said Ruse.

“At least with texting, they can bring their phone into the bathroom if they need to discreetly contact us, and our staff can assess how to proceed from there.”

Ruse said that while the overall number of incoming calls had initially decreased, the number of crisis calls went up 22 per cent.

“There’s fewer people calling for information, but there’s more people calling in crisis.”

Calgary domestic violence statistics don’t paint a full picture

While CPS has reported a 30 per cent decrease in domestic abuse calls for March of this year, compared to March 2019, Staff Sgt. Paul Wozney said it’s too early to tell what those numbers mean.

“We’ve seen domestics in Calgary trending upwards by eight to ten per cent over the last five years, and this year they’ve actually been down three per cent. But in terms of what that means in relation to COVID 19, it’s just too soon to tell,” said Wozney.

Wozney said financial strain connected to Alberta’s oil and gas industry plays a significant role in Calgary’s rates of domestic violence.

“There’s a uniqueness to Calgary, in that we’re seeing higher rates of domestic violence here than in other jurisdictions,” he said.

“I’m not saying financial stress causes domestic violence in the home, but it is still a stressor.”

While statistics can offer insight into issues affecting the community, Wozney worries that numbers alone don’t always provide context.

“I think every situation can be unique, and one person’s motivations can be completely different than another’s, so I’m leery to put blanket statements on something like this,” he said.

Ruse believes the initial drop in calls to the shelter was a matter of safety, as opposed to a matter of need.

“It’s not that people don’t need the help. It’s just that they don’t know how to go about asking for it without putting themselves at risk.”

With call volumes fluctuating from week to week, it’s been difficult to evaluate how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the overall number of abuse cases.

“It’s a really different area to play in now. Every day is a different day.”

An unpredictable time around Calgary domestic violence

The fluctuation in call volume also makes it difficult to predict peak shelter hours, and how to staff accordingly.

Prior to the pandemic, the helpline received the highest number of calls between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the week – while family members were at work or in school.

“Back then, it was easier for those that had made the choice to leave,” said Ruse.

“They could call us on their lunch break, make a plan, pick up their kids from school, and not have to go home again.”

As the need for self-isolation grows, the opportunity for victims to safely reach out diminishes.

Parents have fewer legitimate reasons to leave the house, making it difficult to safely relocate with their children.

“Even if a parent decides to go to the grocery store, they’re supposed to leave their kids at home,” said Ruse.

“It’s really hampering people’s ability to make a plan to leave a relationship.”

Solutions amid coronavirus pandemic

Solutions to these challenges involve having a trusted third party to reach out to in times of crisis, and choosing safe words that will indicate the need for help.

Ruse said there have been discussions about establishing safe words that can be recognized at grocery stores or pharmacies, but this strategy could ultimately do more harm than good.

“We’ve seen this done in France and Spain, but it becomes so widely publicized that people who are abusive are not letting their partners go out to those settings anymore,” said Ruse.

“Right now, we’re more concerned with making sure the information is out there, so people know how to get ahold of us if they need to.”

Wozney said CPS has implemented their own set of protocols to combat the challenges presented by COVID-19, and they will continue to work with and promote other organizations that focus on public safety.

“We’re very lucky that there are multiple layers of response to domestic violence in our community,” said Wozney.

“If people want to call us for help, we’ll get there as fast as we can. That’s never going to change. If they want to call a non-profit, we encourage that, too, because we know these are really good, qualified agencies that will nudge people back towards the police, if that’s the kind of help they need.”