Pembroke -- Requests for help from people experiencing abuse and domestic violence have been on the rise in Renfrew County during the pandemic, say local service providers.
“There has definitely been an increase in requests for service, in the shelter and the outreach program.” said Leigh Sweeney, Executive Director of the Bernadette McCann House (BMH).
The Bernadette McCann House (BMH) in Pembroke provides safety, support and education to people who experience abuse in Renfrew County. According to Ms. Sweeney about 100 women a year access the shelter and over 300 women access BMH services and support each year.
But during the COVID-19 pandemic, service providers like the BMH have had to quickly adapt to public health rules, creating new costs and challenges.
The BMH went from providing 16 beds to eight beds due to physical distancing guidelines.
“(Shelters) are not set up to continue to take in the amount of people they used to take,” she said.
Access to services has also been impacted by the lockdowns.
“Probably the month before (the lockdown ended) we started seeing an escalation once again of people calling the crisis line and people trying to access the shelter,” she explained.
“When the pandemic first started we were kind of like an eerie quiet. Kids weren’t going to school so teachers were no longer able to identify a need and make a referral... people couldn’t reach us.”
Last summer, to make their services more accessible, the BMH created a new text line, complementing their existing phone line.
“Sometimes people don’t have phone minutes,” Ms. Sweeney said. “The more we promote (the text line) the more it’s been used. We like that people connect on it”.
Other government actions during the pandemic have also changed the risk level for people living with an abusive partner. Judicial processes have been delayed and, in some cases, people accused of assault have been let out early on bail.
Marlene Ham, Executive Director of the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, said service providers across the province are seeing the consequences of these changes.
“We’ve had reports from our members about the impact of early release policies but also even those who may have been charged throughout the pandemic, what our members are reporting is that those who have been charged, some of them haven’t been held at all,” she said. “What we think is really necessary is that the justice system needs to… focus on the risk assessment and the level of risk for the survivor.”
These challenges have been exacerbated by the lack of transportation options during the pandemic with the shutdown of Greyhound creating another barrier for people in Renfrew County to get to help.
However, the BMH offers drives to people fleeing abuse.
“We have volunteers, so if we needed somebody picked up somewhere we would arrange for that.” Ms. Sweeney said. “The BMH also has access to spaces throughout the county that we use for outreach programs.”
The Bernadette McCann House has largely maintained in-person programming but to follow public health rules has had to double their program offering to cut group sizes in half.
By contrast, the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County (WSAC), has pivoted to virtual programming. The WSAC is a non-profit organization that provides counselling and education to anyone who has experienced any form of sexual violence.
“We’re getting an increase in requests (for services). It’s a mix of requests for individual supports but also webinars and programs like the self-care workshop,” Jancy Brown, Projects Coordinator with the WSAC, explained.
She said the switch to virtual programming has reached new people.
“We’re getting a lot of folks that maybe have not come forward prior but they’re coming out in the virtual world and testing the waters with us with these non-sexual violence programs,” Ms. Brown said.
The centre offers a variety of programming, ranging from how to support a friend to one-on-one counselling. They also offer a weekly check in.
The increase in requests for services to both the WSAC and Bernadette McCann House has created pressures on staff.
“We definitely need more workers and more children’s workers,” Ms. Sweeney said. “You can’t function in the county with half time positions.”
To create such positions, the Bernadette McCann House would need an increase in core funding.
The Ontario government has assisted service providers by rolling out some funding, like the rural and remote dollars and child enhancement funding, early.
Ms. Sweeney explained that although this funding is not annualized, meaning it’s not a guarantee year to year, it is still very helpful.
“I appreciate everything that we get,” she said.
Last year, the BMH received federal COVID-19 funding through the Women and Gender Equity Department.
However, the patchwork of funding from different governments and departments can also be a challenge to navigate for time-strapped service providers.
“One of the biggest problems is that we have multiple ministries that all fund different types of services, however, they don’t all share the same framework… so there is a lack of cohesion of how they approach the issue of gender-based violence,” Ms. Ham of the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, said.
Ms. Sweeney said all levels of government can help in different ways to address domestic violence.
“We need to be working with housing and CHMC (Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation),” she said. “Those are huge issues for us that have really spiraled during COVID.”
Ms. Sweeney said the strong community support in Renfrew County has been greatly appreciated.
“We have a very gracious and supportive community. We’ve received a lot of donations from the community, and those donations cover things that are not funded. We get gift cards, for example, for gas or food or phone calls.”
The WSAC also appreciates the community support.
“I have to give a shout out to the volunteers that do come out because they are so dedicated and the work that they do is so invaluable,” Ms. Brown said. “In the last five years, they’ve accounted for about four full time positions of work that they do each year for us and since we’re only funded for three full time positions that just tells you how much work is needed.”
She said what is really needed is an increase in core funding.
“Even to maintain services because everything is going up in costs… we’re a transfer payment agency, we don’t get increases in funding,” she said. “It’s a big challenge to be able to keep folks to do the work when you’re not really paid adequately, and you’re not funded to be able to offer the supports that you really want to be able to offer.”
According to Statistics Canada, First Nations, Inuit and Métis women are six times more likely to be killed than non-Indigenous women in Canada. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Legal Aid Ontario has waived eligibility requirements for Indigenous people experiencing domestic violence.
For both the WSAC and Bernadette McCann House, regardless of how the pandemic evolves, their work supporting survivors of assault and abuse will continue.
The Bernadette McCann House Support / Crisis line: 613-732-3131 / Toll Free: 1-800-267-4930
The Texting Support Line: 613-639-1233
The Women's Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County Confidential Support and Crisis Line for survivors of recent or historical sexual violence and those who support them can be reached at- 1-800-663-3060.
Christina Vietinghoff, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader