Montreal

Shelters need access to COVID-19 tests to help victims of conjugal violence, advocates say

Women facing conjugal violence may be reluctant to enter a shelter because of a mandatory quarantine requirement, say advocates, who are calling on the government to give shelters priority access to COVID-19 tests.

Shelters anticipate a big spike in calls once the province eases COVID-19 restrictions and reopens the economy

Sophie Gagnon, the executive director of the legal clinic Juripop, said it has received more than 275 calls to its emergency hotline for conjugal violence victims since the beginning of April. (Dave St-Amant/CBC) (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

Women facing conjugal violence may be reluctant to enter a shelter because of a mandatory quarantine requirement, say advocates, who are calling on the government to give shelters priority access to COVID-19 tests.

"They are not coming. And for us, it's worrying, because we are sure that some women and children are in danger," said Martine Girard, a spokeswoman for an association for women's shelters — the Regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale.

"We're worried women could be killed because we know violence can escalate very fast."

The association, which represents 43 shelters across Quebec, said none of its shelters have access to COVID-19 screening.

Under current public health guidelines, a woman must quarantine (with her children) for 14 days before entering a shelter. 

In larger shelters, there may be space for the woman to quarantine on-site. Others may need to stay in a hotel room until the 14 days is up.

Martine Girard, spokeswoman for the Regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale, says the association has repeatedly asked the province for access to COVID-19 tests. (Radio-Canada)

Girard understands the protective measures are there to keep everyone safe, but feels it's also a big deterrent.

Leaving a violent partner is a difficult decision, said Girard. When women hear they will be isolated in a room and prevented from even going outside for a walk, some decide it's not worth leaving right now.

"In her relationship, she wasn't free and now she comes into our shelter and she's not free either. So we aren't really helping her," said Girard.

She said the association has repeatedly asked the province for access to COVID-19 tests for their staff, as well as for any woman entering a shelter. A negative test would eliminate the need to quarantine.

The province, said Girard, won't budge. 

Calls to police down

Montreal police say conjugal violence calls have decreased by 15 per cent since the COVID-19 crisis began.

Between March 9 and April 26, the SPVM received 600 calls related to conjugal violence compared to an average of 704 for the past three years during the same time period.

But women's shelters say the lower numbers may reflect how difficult it is for women to reach out for help when they are cooped up with an abusive partner around the clock.

Melpa Kamateros, the executive director of Shield of Athena, a Montreal emergency shelter for immigrant women, said the window of opportunity to call for help is often fleeting.

Recently, she said, a mother was speaking to one of their case workers about a plan to leave with her young children.

"At that point, she said 'I have to go. I have to go,' because he came in. So she slammed the phone down and we never heard from her again," said Kamateros.

Big wave anticipated after deconfinement 

Manon Monastesse, the director of Quebec's federation of women's shelters, said some women are now calling from the bathroom, or late at night, because their abuser is otherwise always around. 

Some can only reach out through email or text messages, she said. Monastesse anticipates there will be a huge influx of calls from women looking for services or shelter once the province eases restrictions and further reopens the economy.

Manon Monastesse, the director of Quebec's federation of women's shelters, anticipates they will received a huge wave of calls once the economy reopens and people return to work. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

"The abuser will go back to work and they will not be in the house to control everything," Monastesse said.

Many shelters were already full before the COVID-19 crisis. Although the province did increase shelter budgets to cover extra expenses for food, masks and cleaning products, it did not include money to create additional spaces.

"We are wondering how we will manage that," she said of the anticipated influx.

Return to school causing anxiety

At the beginning of April, the legal-aid clinic Juripop set up an emergency phone line for conjugal violence victims. It allows women to speak with a family lawyer, free of charge.

The clinic's executive director, Sophie Gagnon, said it has answered close to 275 calls in little more than a month, on issues ranging from child custody to alimony.

With many schools poised to reopen in the coming weeks, the question of whether to send their child back is also a hot topic, said Gagnon.

She points out that decision must be taken by both parents, even when one parent has sole custody of the child.

This is potentially awkward, or worse, for victims of conjugal violence who have to work out an agreement with their former partner, she said.

"That's generated a lot of anxiety," Gagnon said. 

She is worried about the impact the ongoing confinement measures will have on women's access to the courts.

Hearings are being restricted to only the most urgent matters, in an effort to limit the spread of the virus; hundreds of cases have already been cancelled.

"The court system was already swamped before the crisis. We are worried those delays will be much longer once the courts reopen," said Gagnon. She hopes to keep the hotline open even after the confinement measures are lifted.

About the Author

Leah Hendry is a TV, radio and online journalist with CBC Montreal Investigates. Contact her via our confidential tipline: 514-597-5155 or on email at montrealinvestigates@cbc.ca.

With files from Marie-Hélène Hétu

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