British Columbia

Domestic violence organizations prepare for possible surge due to COVID-19 isolation

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified difficult family dynamics, and organizations in B.C. that help victims of domestic violence are preparing to meet any increased demand for their services.

Some organizations have reported an increase in calls; others report no change

One B.C. organization is trying to secure cell phones to give to vulnerable clients so that they can contact support workers without their abusive partner's knowledge. (Shutterstock/iHaMoo)

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified difficult family dynamics, and organizations in B.C. that help victims of domestic violence are preparing to meet any increased demand for their services.

On Monday, Maryam Monsef, the federal minister for women and gender equality, said lockdown measures related to the virus has led to a 20 to 30 per cent increase in rates of gender-based violence and domestic violence in some regions of the country, though data on where exactly the uptick is occurring is not yet available.

Tracy Porteous, a clinical counsellor and the executive director of the Ending Violence Association of B.C., says her organization is preparing for the worst. 

"One of the greatest and most common tactics of an abuser is to isolate their victims from friends, and family and coworkers," Porteous said. "While we're all doing our best to flatten the curve and self-isolate ... this is exactly the dynamic that abusers use. It can be a very dangerous time." 

However she says staff at her programs, nearly 300 in total across the province, have not generally experienced an increase in cases — something she says is "quite surprising."

"It feels a little bit like the calm before the storm."

She says they're preparing for any possible surge by organizing tools and supports, such as equipment to help staff who are now working from home. 

On Wednesday, the B.C. government said it had secured nearly 300 additional shelter spaces in communities across the province for people who are leaving "violent or unstable situations." A statement said there are additional spaces "to come."

Candace Stretch, manager of supportive housing and family services for the Cridge Centre in Victoria, B.C., says the non-profit has been doing as much as it can to gather personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies to keep its shelters and transitional housing clean and safe for clients. 

But she says she also hasn't seen an increase in the number of women coming in to use their shelter spaces, even though there has been an 40 per cent increase in the number of people who submitted transitional housing applications in March.

She says she's concerned women aren't coming forward because they think the service is closed or has no space. 

"We really do want to give the message we're working very well in the sector and we're very able to hear from women and offer them as much support, and hopefully shelter, as much as possible."  

Porteous says she's concerned that those needing help aren't getting opportunities to seek help when their day is spent in such close proximity with an abuser.

"Women have been expressing to [our staff] that there isn't a time of day that they can even phone…. If they were already a client of an anti-violence program, there isn't even a time of the day," she said. 

Her group is currently trying to secure 400 phones with plans to send out to programs across the province so vulnerable people can have a phone that is unknown to the abuser. 

Wendy Carr, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia, says this close proximity may also be hurting children who are victims of domestic violence. 

"With the changes, the children don't have direct face-to-face access with their schools and to trusted adults within those schools," Carr explained. 

Her team has put together a web resource for teachers to help them identify children who might be struggling at home.

"Teachers are very well situated to notice differences in their children. That's the case whether they're in front of you or over a phone line or an internet connection," she said. 

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca

With files from On The Coast, On The Island