A Vancouver-based crisis hotline for women experiencing domestic violence has seen a 300 per cent surge in calls as more women flee from abusive partners during the coronavirus outbreak, service agencies say.
The Battered Women’s Support Services crisis line is now getting close to 100 calls each day, up from dozens a day one month ago, according to executive director Angela Marie MacDougall.
“Isolation is a hallmark of domestic violence situations,” MacDougall said.
“With COVID-19, and the social-isolation and social-distancing protocols that we’re all under, it creates a perfect environment for enhanced isolation and violence. It’s really concerning.”
The crisis hotline recently started operating 24-hours-a-day.
“Survivors are having their traumatic responses activated by the current situation so [they experience] increased depression, anxiety, loneliness, suicide ideation and desires to return to the abusive partner just out of loneliness,” MacDougall said.
Women in abusive relationships are asking how to get transition housing and manage acute trauma, she said. Neighbours are calling concerned about the noises they hear through walls. Colleagues tell operators they worry about women forced to work from home with abusive men.
“We’ve got calls from children and from youth who are living with an abusive father and they’ve witnessed their father abusing their mother,” MacDougall said.
Beds are filling up at transition houses — deemed essential services by the government — but physical-distancing obligations have reduced capacity, said Amy FitzGerald, executive director of the B.C. Society of Transition Houses.
“All the transition houses, safe homes and secondary homes are supporting folks, and providing them safe shelter and accommodation in these extraordinary times and circumstances,” FitzGerald said. “But they need help.”
She said transportation to the houses has been particularly challenging for women in remote communities. Counsellors are switching their services to phones and online.
FitzGerald said transition houses have two key needs now.
Prioritized COVID-19 testing for symptomatic women, children and staff would allow operators to determine whether they should prepare extra space for isolation or allow them to join a community house setting.
The houses also need personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, cleaning supplies and cash donations to help pay for technology to allow remote counselling and support.
Some hotel operators have already set aside some rooms to help, MacDougall and FitzGerald said. “We would much rather have folks be in shelter surrounded with supports and in a secure setting, but, in times like this, when the numbers may increase, we have to sort of be creative in terms of what overflow accommodations are available,” FitzGerald said.
“What’s happening right now is all cleaned hands are on deck, in terms of trying to build out a new model of supporting survivors, and we’re doing it fast and furious,” MacDougall said. “Good things are happening.”
On March 18, the federal government acknowledged the need to support women and children fleeing violence in its COVID-19 economic response plan. Ottawa announced up to $50 million in funding for women’s shelters and sexual-assault centres to help them manage or prevent a virus outbreak in their facilities.