How support groups in Quebec are encouraging domestic violence victims to speak up, even during a pandemic

Support groups for domestic violence victims are worried about the effects of prolonged COVID-19 restrictions, and they're trying to change their approach to make sure as many victims as possible are heard, and do not suffer in silence.

Virtual meetings, text lines, more social media posts all part of effort to stay in touch with victims

Support groups for domestic violence victims in Quebec say they've had to change their approach during the pandemic. (CBC News)

Groups in Quebec working with domestic violence victims are worried prolonged COVID-19 restrictions could lead to devastating consequences, and they're ramping up efforts to make sure people don't fall through the cracks.

Advocates say being cooped up in an apartment with an abusive partner, perhaps also dealing with job loss and strained finances, can create a perfect storm for domestic violence, especially if the pandemic is discouraging victims from speaking out.

Take Info-Femmes, for example.

The women's day centre in Montreal's east end neighbourhood of Mercier has been closed for the last eight months, forcing organizers to switch things up.

Instead of meeting at the centre, counselors at Info-Femmes touch base with their clients during Zoom meetings. The centre also checks in with them through what it refers to as "solidarity calls" — regular check-ups by phone, to see if there's anything the women might need. 

It's not ideal, since there's no substitute for face-to-face contact, especially when the stakes are this high.

"If you ask the women, they'll say that they really, really miss being at the centre and being able to physically be with other women," said Linda Basque, a counselor at Info-Femmes. 

"There's a lot of body language you can pick up on when they are in front of you. And this is on a Zoom where you can see the person. If you can't see the person, you are missing a lot of cues, a lot of signals that you get when you are in person."

Linda Basque works as a counselor at the Info-Femmes women's centre in Montreal's east end. (Facebook)

'Nobody sees, nobody hears'

The Info-Femmes centre is just minutes away from a home that was the site of a horrifying scene in October 2019.

A mother walked in and discovered three bodies — those of her two children, aged five and seven, along with their father.

What happened was clear to Montreal police investigators: The man, who was going through a separation with his partner, killed both of his children, before taking his own life. 

It was also clear to staff at Info-Femmes that his actions were deliberate acts of violence against the grieving, surviving mother.

According to Basque, the tragedy led more women in the area to stop by the centre and open up about their own struggles with abusive partners. That made the timing of the COVID-19 lockdown last spring particularly frustrating.

"These [restrictions] create situations where the violence can escalate very quickly," said Basque. "The fact that people are isolated can also give abusers the impression that there won't be any reckoning. He can do what he wants because nobody sees, and nobody hears."

Calls are up, requests for shelters are down

Between April 2019 and April 2020, SOS Violence Conjugale received 33,000 calls — a record. That pace hasn't slowed much during the pandemic, according to Claudine Thibaudeau, who's a social worker with the provincial toll-free crisis line.

But phone operators at SOS are noticing a drop in the number of callers asking to go to a shelter.

It's a worrisome trend, according to Thibaudeau, who agrees that victims are indeed faced with a growing threat of violence due to COVID-19 restrictions.

But it doesn't surprise her. 

Claudine Thibaudeau, a social worker with SOS Violence Conjugale, is hoping a new text line and website will encourage domestic violence victims to come forward. (Submitted by Claudine Thibaudeau)

"It's sort of like advancing with something over your eyes and knowing there are holes around you and trying not to fall," Thibaudeau said of the difficult decision to leave during a pandemic. 

"Who knows what's going to happen in the next few months? Are we going to go back to a complete shutdown like we were in the spring? If that happens, and she's in a shelter, what happens then? How is she going to find a new place to live?"

Long-term concerns over housing also came up when a group representing more than 40 of the province's shelters surveyed nearly 90 women who said they had been victims of domestic violence in recent months.

"[Some] were worried that if they left their homes, then after staying in a shelter they could have a hard time finding an apartment," said Louise Riendeau, who often reaches out to Quebec politicians on behalf of the Regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale.

Riendeau's group has tried to use social media to remind people that shelters are indeed open and victims should not hesitate to reach out — with some shelters being available via text messaging — even if spaces are limited.

According to Riendeau, there are also women who don't feel now is the right time to inquire about going to a shelter.

"The message to stay home went through louder than the message of, 'if you're a victim of domestic violence, you can reach out for help'" she said.

Louise Riendeau, of the Regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale, says less women have asked to go to a shelter during the pandemic. (Louise Riendeau)

'Domestic violence is often more dangerous than COVID-19'

Sensing that many victims are feeling trapped and smothered at home, SOS partnered with Uniprix and Proxim during the summer, which set up private areas inside of hundreds of pharmacies around Quebec for victims who need to contact the hotline during the brief moments they can get away from their partner.

"We have more situations of people that are in the house whispering in the basement," said Thibaudeau. "Or calling us and they have five minutes because they're going to the store to get some milk and they're being timed."

In September, SOS also launched a text line, a service that is not yet well-known, Thibaudeau acknowledged, something she hopes will start to change when it launches its new, fully bilingual website Wednesday.

There's another noticeable trend in calls during the pandemic, she said. More people are calling in to express concern about a loved one.

It's an encouraging sign for advocates. who say people, more than ever, need to trust their guts and do something if they hear or see something — whether that's calling 911, SOS, or even violating public health rules.

"If, in your entourage, there's a woman that's a victim of domestic violence, even if they tell us not to welcome families in our homes, take her in," Riendeau said.

"Domestic violence is often more dangerous than COVID-19."

If you're in immediate danger, call 911. If you need help, SOS violence conjugale is a province-wide toll-free crisis line, available 24/7, TTY compatible

You can reach them at 1-800-363-9010 by phone, or via text at 438-601-1211 You can also look for information on SOS's new website.


Antoni Nerestant is a journalist at CBC Montreal.