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Domestic abuse calls to Ottawa police down during pandemic, but experts urge vigilance

An Ottawa text and chat service has been set up to help victims of domestic abuse amid declining call volumes to police and hotlines.
An Ottawa text and chat service has been set up to help victims of domestic abuse amid declining call volumes to police and hotlines. Getty

Ottawa police are receiving fewer calls about domestic abuse during the coronavirus pandemic, but experts say that doesn’t mean the problems related to violence in the home have gone away.

Global News obtained data from the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) showing that calls requesting an officer’s intervention in domestic disputes with a partner or family member were down more than 23 per cent during the pandemic compared to the same period last year.

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The data, which covers the period from March 16 to April 30, shows that total calls to Ottawa police are down 16.4 per cent year-over-year.

Surge in domestic violence during COVID-19 crisis
Surge in domestic violence during COVID-19 crisis

But while the coronavirus pandemic might see fewer reports of public disturbances such as suspicious persons or loitering as most residents abide by stay-home directives, the shutdown can foster a disturbing new reality for victims of domestic violence.

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The OPS declined to comment further on the statistics it provided to Global News for this story, but did release a statement in March indicating concern about incidents of domestic abuse going unreported amid the pandemic.

The local police service said then that there was fear that the threat of the virus would stop women and children from seeking care for their injuries at a hospital or clinic, taking away one of the OPS’s primary sources of information to learn about cases of domestic violence.

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READ MORE: Decline in domestic violence calls during COVID-19 a sad situation, Moncton agency warns

With abuse hotlines in Ottawa also seeing drop-offs in call volumes, local support agencies turned their attention quickly to address new fears regarding domestic abuse during the pandemic.

Crime Prevention Ottawa, alongside partners such as the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women, launched the Unsafe at Home Ottawa text and chat line to give victims of domestic violence a new channel to seek support while trapped at home with abusers, should they feel anxious about being overheard on a call.

Launched on April 14, Unsafe at Home provides a secure line of communication to local counsellors that can provide advice, referrals and emotional support to women and youth who feel isolated during the pandemic.

“As service providers, it was quite evident that the issues of domestic violence did not go away because of the pandemic,” says Nathalie Lafrenière, the executive director of the Eastern Ottawa Resource Centre, one of the partners in the Unsafe at Home initiative.

Lafrenière says the new service has received at least 150 chat requests since going online, though full reporting data from the project is not yet available.

How COVID-19 social distancing could lead to a rise in domestic abuse
How COVID-19 social distancing could lead to a rise in domestic abuse

“That’s pretty significant,” Lafrenière says of the early results.

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Many of the requests the chat line receives revolve around the changing support systems available during the pandemic, Lafrenière says, though some users just need an outlet to discuss the newfound anxiety that the lockdown has brought to already traumatic situations.

Safety planning for their families is also a top concern; some women have mentioned they’re now worried about using the shelter system and having to share amenities with others during the pandemic, though Lafrenière notes local shelters have implemented measures to mitigate those risks.

READ MORE: Russia's domestic violence reports more than double amid COVID-19 lockdown, official says

While public health officials have instructed Ottawa residents to follow strict physical-distancing protocols to stem the spread of the virus, Lafrenière says we shouldn’t let the pandemic be an excuse to stop checking in on friends, neighbours and loved ones who might be in a difficult situation.

The traditional check-ins we had before going into shutdown — interacting with co-workers, meeting teachers, hanging out with friends — are gone now, but they must be replaced with active efforts to support people in dangerous situations.

“Don’t let this pandemic stop you from listening to that gut feeling,” Lafrenière says.

Given the early demand for a discreet, online support system for victims of domestic violence, Lafrenière hopes the Unsafe at Home project can continue past the pandemic.

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