Experts expect 'tsunami' of domestic violence calls when isolation measures lifted

In Calgary, police receive more than 18,000 domestic conflict calls a year, and experts fear those rates will rise when social isolation rules are lifted.

Social isolation could exacerbate pre-existing abusive behaviours, Discovery House director says

Experts are worried that COVID-19 is exacerbating domestic violence in Calgary, and that survivors may be silenced by the pandemic. (Shutterstock)

Alberta has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Canada — and experts fear those rates will be on the rise when social-isolation rules are lifted.

Calgary police receive more than 18,000 calls per year that are related to domestic conflict.

Last month, Brittney Ann Meszaros, 24, was found dead in the Marlborough home she shared with her common-law partner, Alexander Moskaluk, 23. He has been charged with manslaughter.

Monique Auffrey, executive director of Discovery House, told the Calgary Eyeopener on Friday that factors such as social isolation and the COVID-19 crisis can exacerbate pre-existing abusive behaviours.

She also explained the integral role Albertans play in preventing its occurrence.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: We were already in an economic slump in Calgary and then the pandemic hit. Is there a link between stressful times, like the one we're going through, and the spike in domestic violence?

A: I certainly think the intensity of social isolation is having an impact on mental health. There are issues around job and income insecurity, and some indication that drinking and drug use is on the rise.

But these are factors that are exacerbating pre-existing abusive behaviours. That's what we're seeing — and we are seeing some eerily quiet phone lines as well, which is scary.

Q: Explain that. No one knows what goes on behind closed doors unless somebody speaks out, so do we have any kind of a good grasp on just how much domestic violence is going on in our city?

A: We know from past crisis experiences around the world that domestic violence is on the rise and that it is happening behind closed doors. Some of us are expecting somewhat of a tsunami, once the social isolation and conditions are lifted.

So, yes, we know that it occurs. We know from past experience, we know from the floods of 2013, we know even from COVID indications in Wuhan — and other parts of the world — that domestic violence rates were reported to be threefold during the time of the pandemic.

Q: And yet you say your phone lines are eerily quiet. What do you think is behind that?

A: We're talking about coercive control, we're talking about women who are being monitored in their homes, and yes, for some women, being at home is deadly. People are unable to be in the community, to reach out in some circumstances, and that's what we have to be on the lookout for.

Q: We're hearing now that the mass killing in Nova Scotia actually started with the killer assaulting his girlfriend. And there were warnings about his behaviour. What do you think when you hear that?

A: We know that the red flags are what we're talking about now, in terms of this individual's past behaviours, and reports of domestic violence having been made by witnesses. We also know that there were incidents of abuse that were witnessed by others who did not come forward. 

And so, I can't speak to that case in detail. But certainly it's a very sad situation, and I know my colleagues on the East Coast are hoping for a public inquiry.

Q: We have systems in place to deal with these kinds of cases — court systems and the police. Are they able to do enough in terms of helping women?

A: I can't say enough good things about those with whom I work with in CPS and with the court system. But every system is fraught with some structural inequalities and barriers that make it difficult for people. 

When I'm asked what policing or the justice system might be able to do better for victims, I would say that we still have problems with victim blaming. There are issues around credibility, in the way we perceive credibility of witnesses and victims. And the way trauma impacts the brain, and the way trauma impacts one's ability to tell the story, or to remember a course of events, and so on. 

Q: What advice can you offer to people who are in abusive relationships at the moment?

A: I'm going to extend that: it's really on all of us. 

Yes, there might be victims listening to the show today and wondering what to do, and I would say that shelters remain open, shelter staff are well equipped to deal with the health-related issues with regard to COVID. So we are well versed in how to keep people safe in our shelters — and shelters are a safer place to be than in a home where domestic violence is occurring. 

But on everybody else: if you suspect domestic violence might be happening next door, in someone's home that you know, perpetrators depend on our silence. Victims depend on us to use our voices.

So, I hope that those who are listening today remember that this is not all on victims. It's on all of us.

Discovery House can be reached at 403-670-0467.

People looking for help can call 211, or the Connect Family and Sexual Abuse Network at 1-877-237-5888 for sexual abuse or 403-234-7233 for domestic abuse.

The Family Violence Information Line offers 24-hour support in more than 170 languages. It can be reached at 310-1818.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.