In early April, Calgary Police Service reported an upswing in domestic violence calls, stirring up many questions and concerns about the effect that COVID-19 was having on vulnerable families. But while CPS was responding to more calls, some local agencies and shelters were seeing an unprecedented lull in demand, something they all agree is deeply concerning.
Linda McLean is Executive Director of the Brenda Strafford Centre, a supportive housing agency for families at risk of domestic violence. She describes how Alberta’s recession and high unemployment rates were already a “perfect storm” for domestic violence—a storm that has now turned into a “tsunami” with the pandemic.
“There was a sense of panic at the beginning, and as the wave’s gone out, it’s almost like we’ve gone to radio silence,” she says.
While fewer crisis calls may seem like a good thing, McLean says it’s not that simple. “We know that even in the best of times those phones are busy, and so to have such a striking change … suggests people aren’t able to make those calls or don’t see a route out for themselves right now.”
McLean is not alone in her concern. Esther Elder is Senior Director of Programs and Operations at Discovery House, a second-stage trauma-informed supportive housing agency for women and children fleeing domestic violence. She also highlights the notable decrease in women self-referring or being referred by other agencies during the pandemic, not just in Calgary but around the world. “It’s very difficult for a woman to call when her abuser is standing right there,” Elder says.
While local experts are united in their concern for those who may be vulnerable but unable to reach out for help at this time, they are also in agreement on something else—Calgary was experiencing a domestic violence crisis long before COVID-19.
“Prior to COVID, we already had a pandemic; we had a domestic violence pandemic,” Elder says, referring to the 10-year high in domestic abuse rates reported in Alberta at the end of 2019. And while the number of calls to the shelter have decreased in the midst of the pandemic, the urgency of the calls have increased.
Kim Ruse, Executive Director of the Calgary Emergency Women’s Shelter, echoes a similar story, explaining that the number of calls categorized as crisis calls—individuals who are in immediate danger—is currently double the normal figure.
“We’re noticing in this pandemic higher scores on the danger assessment, and women are reporting being at higher risk than they were prior to the pandemic,” Ruse explains.
An area the shelter has seen an increase in demand for during the pandemic is their men’s counselling service. The program, which supports men who are concerned about their anger and abusive behaviours, has seen a 34% increase in requests in recent weeks.
While COVID-19 has caused upheaval and uncertainty for many, it has also surfaced creativity and innovation across Calgary’s non-profit sector. Agencies have had to adapt how they operate, and the COVID-19 Community Response Fund has played a key role in that.
Discovery House’s pandemic plan assures service continuity and requires adaptability and innovation. Their child and youth case managers found new ways to connect with the kids during self-isolating and social distancing measures, such as making booklets, providing supports via video conferencing, and providing families with activity and comfort packs. Their data indicates that the need for mental health support has significantly increased with clinicians doubling session times for several families due to increased stress resulting from COVID-19.
Discovery House used the Community Response Fund to purchase laptops for the children so they can attend online school and continue connecting with their caseworkers. Elder says that with English not being the first language of several moms, having the laptops relieves the stress of having to homeschool their children without additional supports. “With a focus on children first, we know that education is critical for them to achieve their full potential. Education is also a crucial step in poverty alleviation,” she says, adding that “although low income does not cause domestic violence, income levels are part of the pre-determinants of what will happen to women and children fleeing domestic violence.”
The Brenda Strafford Centre has also used the Community Response Fund to bring relief to homeschooling moms. Since many of the women in the progressive housing program don’t have access to technology or Wi-Fi in their units, the shelter has repurposed its early childhood centre into a makeshift classroom, complete with tablets and learning support from staff members.
The centre has also been implementing creative ways to provide recreation and respite for the families, including door decorating contests and hallway trivia nights. And at the very beginning, McLean explains that the Community Response Fund helped facilitate a back to basic needs approach, something that is not typically in the shelter’s remit as a progressive housing agency. The funds helped provide the women with food hampers, helping put an end to the “what ifs” and panic caused by job insecurity.
The Calgary Emergency Women’s Shelter has adapted by increasing cleaning, collaborating with hotels, and moving most of its services online. It also adapted its helpline to include text and email options. The Community Response Fund has been vital to supporting the increased demand for the shelter’s men’s counselling program, and equipping staff with personal protective equipment. “It’s allowed us to keep services going,” Ruse says.
It can be easy to get lost in the statistics and the headlines. But throughout the crisis are stories of hope.
Like the nine months pregnant woman who knocked on the door of the Calgary Emergency Women’s Shelter to save not only her life, but also that of her soon to be born child. Or the lady at the Brenda Strafford Centre who, after fleeing a forced and abusive marriage and being brought illegally to Canada, says that staying in the shelter is like being in a “five-star hotel.” Or the mom living at Discovery House who, through tears of joy, sees her child receive a laptop and knows she doesn’t have to worry about their education or social supports being cut off.
She doesn’t have to worry, because Calgary is a city that knows how to support its most vulnerable, no matter how uncertain or scary the situation.
If you, or someone you know, is impacted by domestic violence, please contact the 24-hour family violence helpline: 403-234-SAFE (7233) or toll-free 1-866-606-7233.