Ottawa

Domestic abuse text service sees surge in demand

A new text and online chat tool to help women in Ottawa facing domestic abuse has supported more than 300 people in its first month, roughly double what creators of the service expected, they say.

Unsafe at Home Ottawa offers secure chats, texts during COVID-19 pandemic

A woman has a quiet moment to herself at Ottawa's Interval House in 2017. Unsafe At Home Ottawa aims to support women in abusive relationships during the pandemic by providing secure text and online chat options. (Jessa Runciman/CBC)

A new text and online chat tool to help women in Ottawa facing domestic abuse has offered support to more than 300 people in its first month, roughly double what creators of the service say they expected.

"I knew the need was there, I knew it would be used. I was just surprised by the extent of use," said Keri Lewis, executive director of Interval House of Ottawa, a women's domestic abuse shelter.

Lewis's organization is among several that came together to create Unsafe At Home Ottawa, which offers a secure way to text or chat online with a support worker who can provide emotional support, advice and referrals to shelters.

Typically, Interval House of Ottawa's crisis phone line receives about 150 calls a month, mainly from women seeking shelter space, said Lewis.

Since Unsafe At Home launched April 14, it's received 308 texts and online chats.

"What that tells me is that perhaps [a chat and text service] was a need all along," she said.

Security for women who may be spied on

About a third of the texts and chats related to women looking to create a safety plan — which involves figuring out how to stay safer in a home with an abusive partner or to find alternative living arrangements. All women's shelters in Ottawa remain open during the pandemic.

Dillon Black, a senior advisor with the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence against Women — one of the service providers behind Unsafe at Home — said one of the strengths of the service is how secure it is.

Dillon Black, prevention co-ordinator at the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence, worked to find a technologically secure way for women to confidentially communicate with community services during COVID-19 isolation. (Submitted)

One security feature, "automatic conversation deletion," means the online chat will disappear if it sits idle for too long, Black said. Women can also delete the texts on their phone after they access the service.

Unsafe at Home also encrypts its conversations so only service providers have access to the information, said Black.

Black said women are increasingly seeing their private conversations and activities monitored by abusive partners, making security a major priority. Isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has only made private moments harder to find.

"People are dealing with a lot at home right now," Black said. "And we just want to make sure that they're able to reach out to us and to know that — regardless of being stuck at home — that they're able to stay safer and that we're still here for them."

The current funding for Unsafe at Home runs out in July, said Lewis, but organizers hope it will be extended for as long as physical distancing remains. 

Unsafe at Home was created by Crime Prevention Ottawa, the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women, Interval House of Ottawa, the Eastern Ottawa Resource Centre, and Victim Services of Ottawa and with communications support from the Ottawa Police Service.

The text and chat line are available seven days a week, from 8:30 a.m. to midnight. People can text (613) 704-5535 or safely connect with help online at unsafeathomeottawa.ca.

Anyone in immediate danger or who fears for their safety should call 911. 

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