Cooped up with abusive partners, women at risk 'are scared to move,' says shelter director
Shelters are full and staff doing their best to keep people apart, but custody arrangements pose added risks
Women's shelters in Quebec are scrambling to cope and adjust so they can keep offering services to women and children throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although face-to-face consultations are no longer possible due to the order that people stay physically apart, employees continue to connect with clients by phone or video-conferencing, said Melpa Kamateros, the executive director of Shield of Athena, a Montreal emergency shelter for immigrant women.
If the woman does not speak English or French, a three-way call is arranged between the client, a social worker and a translator.
Kamateros acknowledges it's not ideal.
"It reinforces the fact that there is no place to go," she said.
Although women may be referred to a shelter, Kamateros said their shelter is full and so are a lot of others — a reality that existed before the pandemic but is now more dire.
Shelters are under quarantine and opening up extra spots is not recommended.
"It's a vicious cycle," she said.
Making a decision to leave an abusive partner is difficult under the best of circumstances, said Kamateros. The pandemic — which has forced people to restrict outings and left them cooped up in close quarters, at home — is an added stress.
"This is an extra fear in an already fearful existence for them," said Kamateros. "People are scared to move."
Hotel rooms, money for food
To help alleviate the squeeze on shelters that are already overloaded, Manon Monastesse, the director of Quebec's federation of women's shelters, said the federation is discussing with government officials the possibility of renting hotel rooms.
But Monastesse said the big question is security.
Unlike a shelter, hotels may not be able to monitor who is coming in and out.
In addition to looking for ways to alleviate the space crunch, Monastesse said, the federation is also talking to the province about increasing shelter budgets to cover extra expenses for food and other necessities.
Many women's shelters rely on donations from grocery stores or food banks.
If they have to pay for groceries at supermarkets, that's sure to impact their budget, Monastesse said.
"It's also a burden for the financial stability of the shelters."
Last week, the province announced it would provide free emergency daycare services for pre-schoolers and elementary school-aged children of health care providers and other essential service workers.
Women's shelters are considered an essential service, but staff outside Montreal are having a hard time accessing daycare spots, said Monastesse.
"We are waiting for a unified message from the government on that," she said.
Robert Maranda, a spokesperson for the Quebec Ministry of Health and Social Services, said the ministry is aware of the issues facing shelters.
"We are currently working on developing various scenarios in order to respond effectively and safely to the needs of women victims of domestic violence," said Maranda. He said more details will be announced next week.
Keeping shelters virus-free
To help reduce illness, Monastesse said many shelters are putting staff on rotation and physical distancing is being strictly enforced.
Women are allowed to go out for walks, but in common areas such as living rooms or kitchens, shelter staff are trying to limit the number of people in the room at any one time.
Most shelters have set aside rooms in case someone gets sick with COVID-19 so they can be isolated on site, she said.
At Shield of Athena, one person has been designated to go out and do groceries and pick up cleaning supplies.
Employees are sanitizing everything door knobs, computer keyboards and other surfaces in throughout the day, said Kamateros.
Still, with everyone living under the same roof, it is easy for illnesses to spread.
"Shelter life is a communal life," said Kamateros.
Custody agreements problematic
Kamateros believes shelters' efforts to keep women, children and staff healthy are being jeopardized by some custody agreements.
For example, if an agreement stipulates the father gets to see the child on the weekend, the woman has to drop them off. As it stands now, the court order has to be followed, even if the woman is hiding out at a shelter and fears for her life, said Kamateros.
"She picks the child up again and the child goes to the shelter. The clothes are immediately taken off; the child is washed; the clothes are washed, but we don't know where that child has been," said Kamateros. "Isn't that a big danger?"
Lawyer Sophie Gagnon, the executive director of the legal clinic Juripop, agrees there is definitely a risk of contagion at the shelter, but she does not expect the Ministry of Justice will cancel or suspend custody agreements for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Unfortunately, unless there are really exceptional circumstances, these decisions have to be followed," said Gagnon.
If the woman is represented by a lawyer, the lawyer can try to speak with the opposing party to try and make another arrangement, she said. But to limit the spread of the virus, the courts, too, have limited hearings to urgent matters.
"Unless the other parent is really, really sick with COVID-19 and is being treated in the hospital, it's not a situation that changes the applicable custody decisions," said Gagnon.
She is concerned a lot of vulnerable people will made even more vulnerable by the crisis.
In the past, if a single mother was receiving custodial payments from her children's father and he lost his job, a new arrangement would be worked out at a hearing.
"Right now, chances are the courts won't consider this an urgent matter and will wait for months before hearing that request," said Gagnon. "It's crazy. It's really, really nuts."
With files from Marie-Hélène Hétu