ABUSE MAGNIFIED: Pandemic causes more extreme, dangerous domestic violence, says shelter director

·4 min read

The director of a shelter that takes in abused women in rural Manitoba says that while the pandemic hasn’t caused a huge spike in women seeking help at their shelter, it has brought in women in situations that are far more dangerous, and possibly deadly.

“We haven’t seen a huge rise in numbers of people, but the situations we have seen have been far more complex, far more extreme, and far more high-risk, and the stories have been more difficult to hear,” Ang Braun, the executive director of Genesis House in Winkler said on Wednesday.

The Genesis House building has room to take in 16 people, as Braun said a total of five women and eleven children can be in the building’s five bedrooms at the same time.

As of Wednesday morning she said the shelter was at capacity.

Braun said typically calls of violent abuse rank behind calls of emotional or psychological abuse at the shelter, but currently, many of the people they are dealing with are ones that may be in fear for their own lives or the lives of their children.

“Many of the calls and the referrals we are getting are literally people scared of harm to themselves and with a belief that if they don’t get out they might not survive,” she said.

And as the Winkler facility sees more and more women dealing with physical violence, the same trend appears to have happened right across the country since the COVID-19 pandemic first came to Canada in the spring of 2020.

Data released last September from a number of the largest police forces in Canada showed COVID-19 lockdowns in Canada that were first implemented in the spring of 2020 led to a significant increase in calls to police for domestic violence.

Information gathered from 17 police forces showed police responded to more than 38,000 calls for domestic disturbances and violence between March and June of 2020, an increase of more than 4,000 such calls during the same period in 2019.

Braun said the situations are sometimes so bad that she even worries about the mental health of her staff and women’s shelter staff across the country.

“I think that it will take a huge toll and this was already a difficult job to begin with,” she said. “This will take a toll and we could see people looking to switch jobs if it keeps up.”

Braun said isolation can be a factor in the rise in domestic violence reports, but she said she also worries that with the pandemic there are many women who may be dealing with abuse but not reaching out for help.

“I worry about the women we are not seeing,” Braun said. “I really think with COVID it’s become a situation where only the most severe are calling.”

Because of the pandemic many who have wanted to seek help and get out of abusive situations may decide it is just easier to stay in their home and with their abuser, especially in remote areas where people have to travel far to get help, Braun said.

Genesis House serves a large area outside of Winkler, and Braun said even before the pandemic, transportation was always a barrier to those who live in remote areas when looking to get help and get out of abusive situations.

“It just magnifies all those existing challenges,” she said. “One of our biggest challenges for years has been transportation, and you throw COVID into the mix and you can’t even have a friend or family member drive you if they don’t live with you, so it just creates more and more barriers.

“People don’t realize it’s often not as easy as making a decision and then just getting up and walking away.”

The executive director of the Portage Family Abuse Prevention Centre in Portage la Prairie, a facility similar to the one in Winkler, said they have seen their numbers of women and families seeking help spike since the pandemic started. Executive director Kim Lavallee said that currently their numbers have increased five times from where they were last spring, and said that last spring they had already seen increased numbers from what they usually see at that time of year.

dbaxter@postmedia.com

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun

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