Increase in domestic violence calls persists throughout pandemic, says non-profit
Province unveiled new domestic assault hotline Tuesday
When people in this province were told to go home and stay home in mid-March, Val Barter's workload at Violence Prevention Avalon East picked up, and it's stayed that way ever since.
"I have a cellphone at home and I wouldn't turn it off because I knew that I was the person they'd be reaching out to," said Barter, the non-profit group's executive director.
She admitted she didn't expect the sheer volume of calls.
"I thought we would expect some increase, but not by 75 per cent. That was a huge shocker to us," she said.
Barter said that figure held steady throughout the pandemic, until earlier this month when it dropped slightly, to 65 per cent above the previous average.
A lot of the calls were from people reaching out on behalf of others.
"People saying, 'I know this neighbour who might be needing support. They're in a violent, abusive relationship.… What do I do for them?'" she said.
Barter also heard from guidance counsellors, who reached out to her group about children they knew were in unsafe homes. For many children, school provided a safe haven for them from Monday to Friday.
As for how Violence Prevention Avalon East handled the calls, Barter said it was about providing people whatever they needed at the time.
"We co-ordinate resources, provide care packages, and even helped remove several women and seniors from unsafe living situations at the height of the pandemic," said Barter.
Barter says a new online initiative got a lot of attention from people in need after it rolled out in March.
The Unsafe at Home campaign, a domestic abuse support platform, was created to help co-ordinate resources. Barter said it was bridging a gap while violence prevention groups waited for the province to set up a domestic abuse hotline.
The site saw a boom in traffic. From March to April it rose 239 per cent, and in May, another 417 per cent increase, said Barter, with June's numbers trending similarly.
"Most of the traffic went into the COVID-related directory, and the traffic veered to resources for shelters, food insecurity, seniors support, and family support the most," Barter said.
That provincial government hotline launched Tuesday, in partnership with the Transition House Association of Newfoundland and Labrador.
A person will reach a trained professional with one of the 10 transition houses in the province, who will then connect them with whatever resources they need — women's groups, police, medical attention and more.
Now that restrictions are lifting and there's freedom to move around, Barter predicts there will be another uptick in activity for her group, and other similar organizations.
"I think the calls will increase, and the shelters and the women's centres are going to be very, very busy," said Barter.
"Once people can get out safely, because they are locked at home with their abusers, they can't get out, they can't use the phone, they can't use the internet, so once they are free and out in the community then they are going to go to the shelters," Barter added.
RCMP see similar uptick
Newfoundland and Labrador RCMP also saw a jump in domestic violence calls, although their numbers don't match Barter's.
Cpl. Jolene Garland, media relations officer with the RCMP, said within its jurisdiction for January to May, the total number of intimate partner violence reports was 503.
For the same period of time last year, it was 459.
Garland said the rise is an issue, but the RCMP can't tie it to COVID-19 without more data.
"Any increase of reports is also concerning," Garland said.
"It would be premature to speculate on trends and causes of change in the numbers with just a few months of data to refer to."
The new domestic violence hotline will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by call or text at 1-888-709-7090.