Ottawa

Isolation an unsafe option for women facing domestic abuse

As more and more Canadians heed the warnings of health officials to hunker down at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, there's growing concern for women trapped in abusive relationships.

Federal government pledges $50M to help agencies manage crisis

A woman has a quiet moment to herself at Ottawa's Interval House in 2017. (Jessa Runciman/CBC)

As more and more Canadians heed the warnings of health officials to hunker down at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, there's growing concern for women trapped in abusive relationships.

Women experiencing domestic abuse are at even greater risk when they're isolated from the community, including counselling services, according to Lise Martin, executive director of Women's Shelters Canada.

It makes sense to ask Canadians to self-isolate to stay home in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but not every home is safe.- Maryam Monsef, minister of Women and Gender Equality

"If the abusive partner is also now at home 24/7, it really limits her possibilities of reaching out," Martin said.

To help those women during the pandemic, Martin said women's shelters across the country need food, cleaning supplies and protective gloves and masks.

Feds pledge cash

The federal government is pledging up to $50-million to help agencies that help women fleeing abuse cope during the pandemic.

"We are waiting to hear when and [exactly] how much will flow," Keri Lewis, executive director of Interval House in Ottawa, wrote in an email to CBC. "I am relieved to know that there is some help on the way. Our costs are mounting and I suspect that social distancing measures will be in place beyond the end of March."

Like many women's shelters, Interval House has been over-extended for years, and the recent COVID-19 outbreak is adding further stress.

Ally Crockford, executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, says it's 'heartbreaking' that it takes an emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic to get more money. (Darren Major/CBC)

A recent CBC investigation found an ongoing shortage of available shelter beds is leading to thousands of women and children being turned away every month. 

Women and Gender Equality Minister Maryam Monsef said her team spent two days reaching out to centres across the country to find out what they need.

"It makes sense to ask Canadians to self-isolate to stay home in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but not every home is safe," Monsef said in a phone interview with CBC.

"At this point we are working with partners across the country to figure out what the best and most efficient way to flow the funds to the front line organizations is, and additional details on that are coming in the days ahead."

Lise Martin, executive director of Women's Shelters Canada, says agencies across Canada need food, cleaning supplies, gloves and masks to deal with the pandemic. (Mathieu Theriault/CBC)

While $50 million seems like a lot of money, it will be spread out among hundreds of centres across the country, and will likely only be temporary, said Ally Crockford, executive director of Ottawa's Rape Crisis Centre. 

"We've been saying for three years now that our new normal is crisis mode," Crockford said.

"That's a heartbreaking feeling to realize that it takes an emergency to get these kind of resources, and that they're probably going to be only temporary."

Ally Crockford, executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, explains why maintaining counselling and support services is especially critical now that residents are staying home as much as possible. 0:43

Ottawa police are asking the public to remain on alert for potential cases of domestic abuse, especially now that victims are less likely to seek medical attention and may slip through the cracks. 

"A significant portion of our cases, which would normally come from health-care professionals, are going unreported," OPS said in a written statement.

"We urge everyone to pay special attention to the well-being of children and report any suspicious incident to the CAS [Children's Aid Society] or Ottawa Police at 613-236-1222."

If you need help and are in immediate danger, call 911. To find assistance in your area click here.

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the new CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca

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