Domestic violence has been called the shadow pandemic to COVID-19: when people are being told to safely isolate in their homes, some are facing abuse within their own four walls.
“Many women have heard the message: ‘Stay safe, stay home,’ and when home isn’t safe, it’s really hard to know what to do,” explained Jan Reimer, executive director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters.
Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 2, 2020, Edmonton Police have responded to just over 7,800 domestic violence calls.
That’s a 16 per cent increase from the same period in 2019, when officers fielded more than 6,700 of those calls.
However, those numbers don’t tell the whole story, experts say.
“We do know that domestic violence is like sexual assault, vastly under-reported,” Reimer said.
She notes studies show only about one-third of victims report the abuse to police.
“We know when their has been any kind of natural disaster or a pandemic, that the numbers really start rising three-to-six months after and continue for years. So this is not a temporary thing by any stretch of the imagination,” Reimer explained.
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Catholic Social Services says its seen at least an eight per cent increase in people seeking refuge outside their home.
The problem is, shelters in Edmonton were full before the pandemic even started.
“I’m full to the brim. We have no room to take that. We would have to look at other resources for that person, make sure that they’re safe. We’d have to do safety planning, assess the danger,” explained director Patricia Vargas.
CSS decided to convert a number of its unfunded apartment units to interim safe havens.
“We are using those as the overflow for the demand in services. Right now, about 14 of our 16 units are being occupied by women and children escaping violence,” Vargas said.
Stop-gap COVID-19 funding from both the provincial and federal governments is being put to use in a number of ways; to combat food insecurity, ramp up cleaning in shelters, and in some cases, provide hotel rooms to those in immediate danger, when there’s no room anywhere else.
“I think it really is a troubling time,” Reimer said. “We’re really worried about what’s happening now.”
Many shelters have had to reduce capacity due to COVID-19 physical distancing measures.
But just because the shelters are full, it doesn’t mean help isn’t available. From counselling to safety planning, outreach supports are available.
“No woman, regardless of the pandemic, needs to stay in an abusive relationship. There’s help out there, we will do the best we can,” Vargas said.