Alberta seeing 'one pandemic layered on top of another,' anti-domestic violence advocate says

Each week, the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters holds a meeting where members can catch each other up on occupancy numbers and crisis line calls. But executive director Jan Reimer says that lately, it's been scary quiet.

COVID-19 has added complexities for women and children across the country, Jan Reimer says

Alberta Council of Women's Shelters executive director Jan Reimer says domestic violence has been an ongoing challenge for women and children made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. (CBC)

Each week, the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters holds a meeting where its 40 members can catch each other up on the status of its 50 shelters, including on occupancy numbers and crisis line calls.

But executive director Jan Reimer says that lately, it's been scary quiet.

"Our big worry is … as things start loosening up, and this is what we've seen in other countries, is that you're going to start seeing that surge of calls for help," she said. "More and more women reaching out. We're anticipating a very, very busy time."

The combination of COVID-19 physical distancing measures and domestic violence was described as a "powder keg" by Canada's minister for women and gender equality earlier this week. 

"What the pandemic has done with the self-isolation measures, with the closures of some of the support systems, is create a powder keg," Maryam Monsef said in an interview with CBC News.

Crystal Boys knows what it's like to live in fear of an abuser. As a survivor of domestic violence, she said she can't imagine what victims are going through in the middle of a global pandemic.

"They're getting locked up with their abuser, who is now stressed and who is potentially drinking or doing drugs more than normal," Boys said. "And they're locked in [all day], so they have become in danger all of the time."

Crystal Boys is the founder of Airdrie POWER, which is in the process of establishing a day shelter for women and children in Airdrie. (Crystal Boys)

Boys is in the process of establishing a day shelter for women and children in Airdrie, a safe place to come and access resources while preparing to leave a violent situation.

She said though many shelters are remaining open, it's much harder now for victims to reach out.

"You're stuck in a home with these people with very little opportunity to reach out for help," Boys said. "And when you reach out for help, you are in more danger than you've ever been.

"So when you're locked in with this person, the likelihood of a woman actually reaching out when he's sitting right beside her in the house is very, very low."

Additional services

It's something Calgary Women's Emergency Shelter is trying to address.

Last month, the shelter started offering access to its services through e-mail and text messaging.

Kim Ruse is the executive director at the Calgary Women's Emergency Shelter. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Kim Ruse, the shelter's executive director, said they are not as full as normal, and she's worried by what she's seeing with the shelter's risk assessment tool.

"We've already seen over the past year and a half those danger assessment scores increasing, but we're seeing them during the pandemic increase even more, which is really concerning," Ruse said.

"Because that means that the level of danger that women are living in is exponentially higher right now than it was previous to the pandemic." 

Ruse said there has also been a 34 per cent increase in the amount of men accessing the organization's men's program.

Emergency shelter for Muslim women

At the Calgary chapter of Nisa Homes, which provides emergency shelter for Muslim women across Canada, there has been a drop in calls.

Saima Mafat with Nisa Homes said they have had to limit the amount of people coming in as the space is set up as more of a communal living area with shared kitchens and bathrooms.

"Unless it's an emergency, we're definitely open and we're definitely taking clients in, but we are also looking at other options whether we can help them remotely," Mafat said. "So if we can do the case management remotely, we're trying to do that as well."

Mafat said one of the unique challenges in addition to COVID-19 is the fact that it is the month of Ramadan, when fasting is practiced.

"You don't have any food in your system and you know, that frustration or the temperament that comes down from just that can be an added layer," Mafat said.

"I haven't seen anything of that sort, but I won't be surprised if it does come through that way."

'Don't forget about the children' 

Monique Auffrey is the CEO of Discovery House in Calgary, an organization that helps women and children flee domestic violence.

She said it's important not to overlook the trauma children are facing in a violent household. 

"Research tells us that a fetus in utero is negatively impacted by the stress borne by the mother in a domestic violence situation," Auffrey said. "So in a family home, whether or not children witness it with their eyes, they're certainly experiencing it in other ways and are very much aware of what's happening."

Monique Auffrey, the CEO of Discovery House in Calgary, says it’s important not to overlook the trauma that children face in a violent household. (Monique Auffrey)

Organizations are constantly developing new ways for women and children in domestic abuse situations to communicate a call for help. The latest, called the Signal for Help campaign, was launched by the Canadian Women's Foundation last week.

Signal for Help is a one-handed gesture women can use while on a video call to alert the person they are talking to that they feel threatened.

According to the Calgary Domestic Violence Collective, Alberta has the third highest rate of domestic violence in Canada.

In many cases, Auffrey said the public can play a vital role in stopping domestic abuse.

"It is really incumbent upon our communities to ensure that if they are witness to violence or they suspect violence is happening in their neighborhood, next door, in their family member's homes, et cetera, that they are calling 911," Auffrey said.