Ottawa

Isolated by pandemic, fewer sexual assault victims going to ER

A new study from The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute reveals a 50 per cent drop in visits to the hospital network's emergency rooms by sexual assault and domestic violence victims during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Number of sexual assault, domestic abuse victims presenting at Ottawa Hospital emergency rooms dropped by half

Researchers found the usual number of sexual assault and domestic violence victims presenting at The Ottawa Hospital's emergency departments dropped by half during the first wave of the pandemic. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

There's growing concern that Ontario's ongoing lockdowns and stay-at-home orders are preventing victims of sexual assault and domestic violence from seeking needed medical treatment.  

A new study from The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute reveals a 50 per cent drop in visits to the hospital network's emergency rooms by sexual assault and domestic violence victims during the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ottawa Hospital usually sees about 40 such cases every month, according to trends monitored by Katherine Muldoon, a researcher at the institute and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa.

We know that violence is still happening, and in many ways it was getting worse.- Katherine Muldoon, The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute

"I think there's a combination of factors that are contributing to the decrease, because we know that violence is still happening, and in many ways it was getting worse," said Muldoon. "People were unable to leave their homes ... trapped at home with a controlling or abusive partner and just unable to go out and seek services." 

Somewhat paradoxically, the study also found more assaults occurring outside of the home early in the pandemic.

"We were surprised, but I think one of the reasons might be that people were following directives to not go inside somebody else's home. But it might have led them to go to more at-risk environments like outside or in a car," Muldoon noted. 

Katherine Muldoon is a senior research associate at The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and an assistant professor in the obstetrical and gynecology department the University of Ottawa. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

The findings come as no surprise to Melissa Heimerl, executive director of Ottawa Victim Services.

Ottawa's police chief and other agencies voiced similar concerns about isolated people being unable to access help and treatment during the first wave of COVID-19.

But Heimerl said her concerns go beyond the need for immediate medical help.

"With people not accessing the clinic, not getting the documentation of injury, not getting a sexual assault evidence collected, it means that a lot of these victims won't have that evidentiary base to pursue justice in the future."

Victims isolated

Ontario's current stay-at-home order, which took effect Jan. 12, is once again keeping people isolated in their homes, away from work and other outside activities.

"In the past, they've been able to leave the home to go and do groceries and maybe walk into a community service agency, or they would call when their partner was at work and get support," said Heimerl. "We're back in isolation now. We're seeing the same problem." 

Melissa Heimerl, executive director of Ottawa Victim Services, is concerned women isolated by the pandemic aren't seeking the help they need. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

Dr. Kari Sampsel, director of the Sexual Assault and Abuse Care Program at The Ottawa Hospital, said she has regular discussions with her counterparts at hospitals across Ontario, and they're seeing the same trends. The Ottawa hospital research team now has a grant to track the data from hospitals across the province. 

"It's not to say that stay-at-home orders aren't good for the greater health of the population, it's just that it's very dangerous for those that are in a volatile or abusive situation," said Sampsel. 

Even with lockdown orders in effect, services for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence continue to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"We are still seeing people in person all the time. We're physically located within the Civic campus emergency department, so if people are needing us, that's the place to go," said Sampsel.

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 CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca

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