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Physical distancing creates new barriers for Nunavut child abuse victims

As many health services turn to using teleconference and online contact because of COVID-19, Iqaluit’s child advocacy centre is finding some work is best done in person.

Iqaluit child advocacy centre adapts to limitations of COVID-19

Emma Akulukjuk-Hackett and Laura Pia Churchill are child and family advocates at the Umingmak centre in Iqlauit. The advocates are speaking over the phone and meeting outdoors with clients because of physical distancing. (Submitted by Sarah Clark)

As many health services turn to using teleconference and online contact because of COVID-19, Iqaluit's child advocacy centre is finding some work is best done in person. 

Opened in October by the Arctic Children and Youth Foundation, the Umingmak Child and Youth Support Centre works with clients who have disclosed abuse. This could range from witnessing domestic violence to being a victim of physical or sexual abuse themselves. 

While the centre is still open as an emergency service for urgent disclosures of abuse through family services or the police, weekly one-on-ones with clients have been moved to twice weekly telephone check-ins and, to physically distanced walks once each week, as approved by public health.  

Those walks make a big difference, said Emma Akulukjuk-Hackett, a child and family advocate for the Umingmak Child and Youth Support Centre. 

"The biggest way to connect with a younger child is through play and through facial expressions and not really being able to see them and have them see you, it's hard to connect," she said. "You don't really connect through words, especially with the younger kids."

Children in Nunavut are ten times more likely to experience abuse, the Arctic Children and Youth Foundation website states. 

Client numbers have doubled

Right now the Umingmak centre is helping around 50 clients between the ages of four and 17, with one full-time and one part-time therapist and two child and family advocates. 

Since physical distancing rules started, the centre has been asking clients to find a quiet space to talk on the phone for meetings. But this isn't always possible, said Sarah Clark, executive director of the Arctic Children and Youth Foundation.

"It's hard to get private space in the home," she said. 

To make connecting easier, the foundation is getting iPads to clients for video meetings. They will have secure internet for youth safety, and weekly data limits that can be monitored by the centre. 

Before the pandemic, the centre served around 27 clients, but those numbers dropped at the beginning when schools and work closed. Now, client numbers have doubled. 

Clark says the centre is too new for her to say if this spike is because of COVID-19, but said child advocacy centres elsewhere in Canada expected to see referrals increase. 

"Because of isolation, and all the stresses that are on parents and the fact that kids aren't going to school and an increase in general tensions, referrals were likely to go up," she said.

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