By Susan Clairmont, Spectator Columnist, May 6, 2020.
He said he hoped COVID-19 would kill her.
Then he wouldn’t have to do it.
This is a real story from the front lines of the domestic violence crisis building momentum in our community.
There was fear a surge in coronavirus cases would hit our hospitals. Now shelters are bracing for a surge in women and children fleeing abusive homes when the quarantine ends.
“It is the eerie, quiet calm before the perfect storm,” says Nancy Smith, executive director of Interval House, a shelter for women and children fleeing violence. “When the lockdown lifts, there will be a huge increase for service.”
Women’s shelters are notoriously underfunded and overcrowded at the best of times. So Smith has reason to be concerned as she prepares for the worst.
There have been predictions that domestic violence will rise during the pandemic. But now, in the middle of it, it’s hard to know what is happening inside homes.
While Interval House has operated at 130 per cent of its capacity in the past, now it is 75 per cent full, partly due to provisions made for physical distancing, but also because of a reduction in calls.
Hamilton Police Service reported that in the first six weeks of the lockdown, calls for domestic violence have gone down by one per cent. (Police says this is an “unaudited” number and not an official crime statistic.)
Despite those rough numbers, few domestic violence experts believe things are better during COVID-19.
Since a state of emergency was declared on March 17, shelters have shouted their message: We are open. Help is available.
“Not every home is a safe place to be,” says Smith. For women trapped at home, controlled by an abuser, “the danger and risk is higher.”
Smith says reports have spiked of women being sexually assaulted at home.
In lockdown, a woman may not be able to reach out for help or take steps to plan for safety. Often, women will go to a neighbour’s or a friend’s when they need to escape. In a pandemic, that is difficult.
Abuse of women and children is sometimes noticed by coworkers, teachers and coaches — none of whom likely have contact with them currently.
Isolation is a powerful tool for an abuser — and the pandemic has handed that on a silver platter, says psychologist Peter Jaffe, a Western University professor and renowned expert on domestic violence.
Only one-third of domestic violence victims call police under “normal” circumstances. Now, it’s likely the rate of domestic violence is increasing because of isolation and reporting has been further reduced, says Jaffe.
Some women may assume first responders are too busy with COVID-19 to deal with a domestic violence complaint, so they don’t call, he says.
Leaving an abusive situation is not simple.
“Just because your front door is open, doesn’t mean you can walk out,” Jaffe says.
A woman will consider her finances, her access to shelter and her contact with a support system.
The situation could be exacerbated by stress, alcohol consumption and economic instability — all of which have skyrocketed during the lockdown.
The family court system is difficult to access right now, says Jaffe. Custody and separation agreements are slow to process.
“She may believe she is better off staying at home and trying to manage the situation as best she can,” says Jaffe. Trying to leave and failing can have dire consequences, he adds.
It will be years before researchers piece together a true picture of what domestic violence looked like during the pandemic.
A paper published last month for the Center for Global Development by the Gender and COVID-19 Working Group has begun that work in real time. Written by a network of interdisciplinary stakeholders from around the world, including Canada, it lists major factors for increased domestic violence during this crisis, including: economic insecurity, social isolation, reduced health service availability and access to first responders and inability of women to temporarily escape abusive partners.
Drawing from earlier studies, the paper notes that a one per cent increase in male unemployment is associated with a 2.5 per cent increase in domestic violence targeting women. The number of job losses due to COVID-19 makes that a red flag.
Domestic violence calls are still a priority for Hamilton police — in fact, they can respond faster now since other non-urgent calls for service are being dealt with over the phone.
“We want to reassure women we’re here to help and keep them safe,” says Sgt. Sara Beck of the domestic violence unit.
The one per cent drop in calls may be a result of small, normal fluctuations, Beck says, or it could be that women “are isolated at home with the abuser and cannot safely report.” It is too early to tell.
The bail safety unit is continuing to do everything it can to ensure accused abusers are held for bail, despite a general move by the court to release more prisoners because of the increased risk of contracting COVID-19 in custody.