Nova Scotia·The Big Spend

COVID lays bare need for organizations that help victims of domestic abuse

The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly difficult and stressful for families isolating together at home without financial, social and other supports.

28 shelters, counselling services in N.S. received $1.17M in federal dollars

Organizations in Nova Scotia say the need for family supports has increased during the pandemic, but some see this as a moment of 'opportunity and growth' for their sector. (Shutterstock)

This story is part of The Big Spend, a CBC News investigation examining the unprecedented $240 billion the federal government handed out during the first eight months of the pandemic. 

As schools, small businesses and health-care services closed down one after another this past spring, Tod Augusta-Scott watched his waiting list for family counselling grow longer and longer. 

Augusta-Scott is the executive director of the Bridges Institute in Truro, N.S., a non-profit organization that provides counselling to families trying to rebuild after domestic abuse.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly difficult and stressful for families isolating together at home without financial, social and other supports.

"We're working at not only stopping the abuse, but looking at repairing the harm that was done and engaging parents and spouses in those conversations, " he said.

"The biggest factor [during the pandemic] has just been the increasing numbers that we've seen at Bridges. There's been an increase of 20 to 30 per cent over the prior year."

Surprise funding leads to 'hours of support'

Augusta-Scott said he and the other counsellors at Bridges would typically handle roughly 150 cases a year. They've expanded that number by approximately 50 families, after receiving a boost in funding from the federal and provincial governments that came as a "complete surprise." 

Tod Augusta-Scott is the executive director of the Bridges Centre in Truro, an organization that offers family counselling in cases where one or both partners has been abusive. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

"It was a relief because the waiting list was there and we weren't able to talk to many of these families because there wasn't the finances for the counselling," he said. "It literally translated into hours of support for families."

Augusta-Scott is no stranger to filling out "reams of paperwork" to apply for grant money, but he didn't do that this time — he simply received an email telling him Bridges qualified. 

Since Bridges had been collaborating at the provincial and national levels, he believes the organization was already on the government's radar. 

More than $1.17M given to N.S. groups

Ottawa has given 28 organizations in Nova Scotia more than $1.17 million in funding, with grants ranging from $25,000 to $77,677 depending on the size of the organization and the services offered. Recipients include domestic violence shelters, sexual assault centres and counselling services, such as Bridges.

Funding came from the province, too. Nova Scotia split approximately $535,000 in emergency funding among 11 transition houses, and made $284,924 in essential worker benefits available to transition house staff.   

A November survey of 266 women's shelters across Canada showed almost 60 per cent of those organizations reported calls went down in the first three months of the pandemic, but increased as lockdown restrictions started to lift. The shelters believe numbers initially fell because women were unable to call for help when abusive partners were present. 

Some shelters also reported increases in the severity of violence against women, with some cases involving stabbing, strangulation, and broken bones. 

Sharing the message during a pandemic

It was sometimes difficult to let people know early in the pandemic that the essential work of shelters and transition houses was still happening, said Shiva Nourpanah, co-ordinator of the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia. 

"There was a lot of panic and a lot of communication, a lot of public awareness campaigning, because the message that our public was receiving, rightly so, was stay at home," she said. 

"It was our challenge to add some nuance to this message that if you're unsafe, if your home is unsafe, there are options for you. You don't have to stay in an unsafe home, in an abusive home." 

The need for services is growing, says Shiva Nourpanah, provincial co-ordinator of the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia. (CBC)

Nourpanah said weekly meetings began with provincial government officials in mid-March, where transition houses were able to discuss their capacity and needs. 

There is ongoing demand for funding, she said, as the needs of shelters have only increased.

At the same time, Nourpanah said people are beginning to see the pandemic as a chance to bring attention to the important work that's being done.

"I've heard the words 'moment of opportunity and growth,' and, you know, a 'historic time for public awareness and fundraising in the sector' from women who have been active in this sector since the 70s."

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shaina Luck

Reporter

Shaina Luck is an investigative reporter with CBC Nova Scotia. She has worked with local and network programs including The National and The Fifth Estate. Email: shaina.luck@cbc.ca

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