Canada

COVID-19 isolation measures increase risk for those in abusive relationships

Imposed isolation is meant to protect us from COVID-19, but it's also putting many people at a higher level of risk because they're confined in a space with the very person who is abusing them.

Imposed isolation protects us against COVID-19, but exposes some to risks from abusers in a household

Women’s shelters and counselling services are still open but under pressure to practise physical distancing and are expecting demand to rise as COVID-19 pandemic goes on. 2:50

Being isolated at home, without the ability to see friends or get out of the house for any reason, is tough. For a subset of Canadians, though, it can be deadly.

"I remember being so disappointed when there was a PA day or a day off school," says Rifaa Carter. "School and homework, those were things that gave me a little bit of relief from the abuse.

"Growing up in an abusive home and with a jobless parent, it was a really scary and hopeless situation," she adds.

Carter is a survivor of childhood physical abuse, who now advocates for other women facing violence, through an organization called WomenattheCentrE.

She got out of her dangerous situation, but thousands of women in Canada continue to experience abuse in their homes.

In fact, every six days in Canada a woman is killed by her partner, according to The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime. Statistics Canada adds that in 2018, the number of attempted murders of women by intimate partners was the equivalent of one every five days, and more than 155,000 cases of violence against women in households were reported to police.

And in this time of imposed isolation and self-distancing, they are at a higher level of risk because they are confined in a space with the very person who is hurting them.

"We know for some women, their homes are not safe," says Marlene Ham, executive director of The Ontario Association of Interval and Transitional Houses (OAITH).

Rifaa Carter grew up in an abusive household. She worries that with people staying home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, 'all the red flags are going to be missed,' in terms of women who are being abused while in isolation. (Rifaa Carter)

Last week, Prime Minister Trudeau recognized the potential danger in his daily press address, and announced an additional $50 million in new funding to help.

"For anyone fleeing domestic or gender based violence, we will boost funding for shelters that provide sanctuary when self-isolating at home is not an option," he said on March 18.

Marlene Ham was one of the people relieved to hear that. OAITH represents over 70 abuse shelters, and she says the federal support is very much needed.

"This is a very scary time for many women," says Ham. "Trudeau's statement certainly does send a message that governments are paying attention, they understand our needs, they are working with us. And we are at a time where we really do all need to work together."

Ham says that since the repeated requests for people to isolate were made, she has already seen intake requests at shelters rise. Currently, 6,000 women sleep in shelters for domestic abuse in Canada on any given night, and Ham expects those numbers to rise significantly due to the effects of self-isolation on already-troubled households.

Also, the way shelters and agencies like The Ontario Association of Interval and Transitional Houses support women is having to change.

"None of us have been through this before," says Ham. "Every policy, every procedure, and every way of moving through the world has drastically changed, so we're in a place of having to figure out new ways to cope."

Marlene Ham, executive director of The Ontario Association of Interval and Transitional Houses, says Ontario's shelters are operating and adapting to adhere to social distancing requirements. 0:23

Some of those new strategies include support workers who can no longer do face-to-face meetings shifting to phone and skype calls with clients, where possible. However, even those approaches can prove difficult in situations where women are confined to small spaces with their partners and aren't able to communicate freely.

Ham's organization has been working to help women who they know are in the most dangerous situations first, and then working down their lists according to the most pressing needs.

Deepa Mattoo, executive director of The Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic in Toronto, says it's the isolation itself that is heightening the risk for women.

"We always say that women experience escalation of violence when they're isolated. So any kind of isolation is the breeding ground, and that's what we are fearful of," says Mattoo. "There is potential for her also feeling that she cannot access the services or access supports she needs."

Deepa Mattoo runs the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which offers legal support to victims of abuse. She says she suspects the need will rise as women find themselves increasingly isolated. 0:34

The Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which offers legal support to victims of violence, has also adapted in the past few weeks and has changed the way it is supporting clients.

Even little features on the clinic's website can make a huge difference. For example, there's an icon where women can exit the site immediately by pressing a big red LEAVE button if their abusers unexpectedly enter the room behind them when they are on the computer. It's a little thing, but something that Matoo thinks can deescalate a dangerous situation.

"This is just the perfect storm," Mattoo says. "This is really challenging us to think outside the box."

The clinic also has links to emergency services on its website, is offering support counselling and advice services online or over the phone, and is offering women updated safety planning and tips if they need to flee their homes quickly. And it expects all these services will be used.

"We have a high-risk team which is working on the ground still, and it's absolutely very, very hot. We are all looking at 12-hours-a-day kind of days," says Mattoo. "There will be a larger number of calls coming to us as compared to what we were dealing with before."

Mattoo has partnered with other community agencies, and has also made sure her centre's services are shared on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms so that as many women as possible know that help is out there and how to reach it.

Rifaa Carter, who knows what it's like to live in an abusive home, thinks the more agencies reach out directly to women who are at risk right now, the better.

"All the red flags are going to be missed. No one is going to notice that you didn't show up at work, no one is going to notice that you're not being yourself today, or any of the other things people notice and say 'hey what's going on is everything ok?," she says.

About the Author

Perlita Stroh

Producer, The National

Perlita Stroh is a producer with The National at CBC News. She works on news and current affairs stories and is based in Toronto.

With files from Ellen Mauro