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'Worst case scenario': Crisis workers seeing spike in domestic violence concerns during pandemic
VANCOUVER -- The pandemic is raising the danger facing women in abusive relationships, crisis workers say, leading to one frontline organization being flooded with calls and emails.
"This situation right now is the worst case scenario for women that are victims, that are living with violence," said Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver.
The danger is increasing, said MacDougall as people are told to stay at home and not socialize due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only does this put women in close contact with an abuser, it also increases the abuser’s ability to separate a woman from her friends, family, and now, crucial information.
“For women dealing with violence, isolation is one of the key parts of violence of power and control," she said. "It's one of the hallmarks of power and control.”
MacDougall said abusive partners can use isolation to deny women’s access to crucial information about the pandemic or limit access to health workers.
The BWSS website also notes women may be at risk if a partner limits access to critical products like hand sanitizer, or exes may try to use the situation to get back together with a woman.
While most victims of domestic violence are women, MacDougall noted others are also at risk at this time.
“We’re talking about children, we’re talking about elders. It’s like a whole layer of isolation on top of isolation," she said.
MacDougall said economic stresses can also be a factor in all kinds of abuse and with layoffs happening with increasing frequency, the risk to someone in an abusive relationship, goes up.
The concern is being echoed by Green Party MLA Sonia Furstenau.
“Statistics show us data shows us that when there are layoffs when there are economic crises when there's unemployment that goes up so does the rate of domestic violence, and the other piece to add to this is that children are also at home," she said.
Furstenau said she’s been in touch with Cowichan Women against Violence society, and other shelters and transition homes, who are bracing for more calls for support.
“This is a very worrying storm of circumstances for women and children who face potential violence.”
Last week during an emergency legislative session to pass bill related to COVID-19 financial support, she asked the province what supports would be made available.
The province's finance minister responded the government was working with BC Housing to look at perhaps getting hotel rooms for those who are fleeing violence. Shelters around the province operate pretty much at capacity.
“We’re stepping up and making sure that nobody is left homeless or in a situation that is not safe due to COVID-19,” said Mitzi Dean, the parliamentary secretary for gender equity.
Dean added the province’s $5 billion COVID-19 aid plan includes supports to help vulnerable people.
“We have hotels and we may be looking at having hotels only for women,” she added.
While Furstenau applauds that move, she worries it may not go far enough.
“What I'm also hearing is that there is a lack of staff and volunteer capacity right now and counselors because, again, you know it may be because people are unable to come in," she said.
The federal government announced supports for shelters, which could help. Yet, MacDougall points out, that’s not something BWSS will benefit from because they run a crisis and support line - not a shelter.
“We have unfortunately fallen through the cracks,” said MacDougall.
MacDougall told CTV News a Facebook post, which shared the message, “Are you co-quarantined with your abusive partner? We can help” has been viewed more than 86,000 times, which is unheard of for the organization.
The front page of BWSS's website is dedicated entirely to reflect domestic violence concerns brought up by the pandemic, as a way to get in front of what was happening. MacDougall said they heard from workers in China about violence increasing and they wanted to get in front.
Among the callers are women who want to change their safety plans, others are neighbours or co-workers worried about someone they know. Without an increase in funding, MacDougall said BWSS is using its own finances, and is now asking for donations to support the work it does. That doesn’t change the organization’s message to those needing help.
“We are here for you, and we'd like you to connect.”
The organization says it is working with the province to get more minutes on pay as you go phones to allow victims to access the help they need.
MacDougall also shared a call received by workers:
"I've been self isolated with my two children. However, I just can't imagine how hard it would be living at this time with my abusive partner. If I had to go through this hard time, at least I'm not living with abuse."
For Furstenau, the pandemic and the risk to women and children highlights gaps in social service supports.
“We have to take this crisis which is shining a light so clearly on the gaps and say, okay, how do we move out of this and fill those gaps in the future so that we're not in this kind of situation again.”