County council asked to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic

Shelter educator says reframing as public health issue could help reduce stigma

GUELPH – Guelph Wellington Women in Crisis (GWWIC) officials say intimate partner abuse is on the rise and they’re asking the County of Wellington to recognize the situation as an epidemic.

“The abuse that our clients are experiencing is becoming more frequent, it’s becoming more severe and it’s becoming more complex than it used to be,” GWWIC public educator Cindy McMann told county council on Feb. 29.

“And that’s squarely aligned with the trends that we’re seeing across Canada.”

McMann said GWWIC annually takes more than 3,000 calls on its crisis line, which serves both Guelph and county residents.

In addition, about 240 clients and 142 of their dependents accessed emergency shelter through the organization, which has offices in Fergus, Erin, Palmerston and Mount Forest and operates a shelter in Guelph.

“That said, most people who are experiencing intimate partner violence, they don’t call a gender-based violence support centre at all,” said McMann.

“They don’t call the police. We don’t have a record of them. But we do know that they are out there. We know that our numbers are absolutely the tip of the iceberg.”

McMann told council about 44 per cent of women in Canada will experience some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime – and rates of violence are rising.

The rate of intimate partner violence in 2022 was 90% higher than in 2014 and there was a 27% increase in femicides from 2019 to 2022, she explained.

McMann pointed out that in Ontario alone, 52 women were killed in 52 weeks during 2022 and that figure rose to 62 women in 2023.

“Intimate partner violence is not going away and the things that we are doing right now to address it are not working,” she stated.

“And they’re not working largely because, as it stands now, our systems more or less make it an individual responsibility to stay safe from intimate partner violence.”

The issue of intimate partner violence is poorly understood by the public at large, said McMann.

“The top question that I get as an educator when I go to talk about intimate partner violence, is, ‘Why wouldn’t people just leave if they’re experiencing abuse?’ … Not, ‘Why don’t abusers stop abusing people?’”

People who have experienced intimate partner violence in rural areas face huge barriers to any efforts to leave an abuser.

“It’s actually really difficult to stay safe from intimate partner violence,” said McMann.

Part of the reason, she explained, is the most dangerous time for abuse victims is when they attempt to leave.

“People are 27 times more likely to be killed during or after a separation than they are during the relationship itself,” she said.

“Abusers are also more likely to have access to firearms in rural areas and that intensifies safety risks.

“Our county is also enormous … really long distances means that it takes longer for help to arrive if somebody needs it in an emergency.”

McMann also pointed out that affordable housing is “virtually non-existent” and there is no shelter for intimate partner violence victims in the county.

“So if they want to stay in their communities, there often isn’t a safe place for them to go,” she stated.

With services for abuse victims spread out over a wide area, McMann said it’s difficult for them to find the supports needed to allow them to “get out and stay out.

“Smaller communities can also create bystander issues, where friends and family and neighbors will be in denial about abuses going on.”

McMann said a community response is required, as taking the approach that it’s everyone’s individual responsibility not to be abused isn’t working.

“We have decades of data to show that this approach has not been effective at reducing violence and is unlikely to become so in the future,” McMann stressed.

“So if we want less violent communities, we have to change our tactics.”

Noting the approach needs to be proactive and focus on prevention, McMann said a blueprint for prevention strategy is already available.

A 2022 coroner’s inquest into the the 2015 murders of three women — Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam — in and around rural Renfrew County resulted in 86 recommendations to help prevent gender-based violence.

McMann suggested the recommendations could be used to help formulate a local plan to deal with the issue.

“Their top recommendation was to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic so that we can start talking about it as a public health issue,” she told council.

“Other communities have done this kind of retrospective taking stock of what could have prevented violence. And so we don’t have to do that.

“As a county, instead, we have an opportunity to take a lead in implementing some recommendations to build a stronger safety net for our community.”

She added, “But the first step to do now is to reframe the issue of intimate partner violence as a public health concern and to declare it as the epidemic that it is.”

Councillor Matthew Bulmer agreed the word epidemic could fairly be used to describe the local situation.

“Members of council receive a lot of updates from the OPP … and back in January one that stood out for me was all of a sudden it seemed like every other day there were was an intimate partner violence issue with the OPP here in the county … (it) looked like an outbreak or, to use your language, an epidemic,” he said.

Bulmer asked McMann how long abuse victims generally remain in a shelter before they can move on to safe housing.

While noting each situation is unique, McMann replied, “I can say that our average length of stay used to be six weeks and now folks are staying with us an average of six months, over a year.

“It really depends on how many children a person has and what kind of housing they’re waiting for. But we’ve definitely had folks who are living with their children in a shelter environment for upwards of a year.”

McMann pointed out GWWIC’s 20-bed shelter in Guelph is always full.

However, she noted, “a lot of folks in the county, they don’t want to come to Guelph.

“They want to stay in their communities, they want to stay where they grew up, they want to stay closer to their families.”

Social services committee chair councillor David Anderson noted local residents are under increasing pressures resulting from the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the skyrocketing cost of living and other factors.

“We’re anticipating in social services that things are going to get worse,” said Anderson, who asked McMann if her organization has a game plan “to deal with an increasing volume of people calling for assistance?”

McMann said all of the crisis centre’s capacity to deal with higher volume is based on funding.

“So we pursue different, more creative avenues for funding so that we have the capacity to hire more counsellors to support that influx,” she replied.

GWWIC is also building partnerships, for example, with grocery suppliers and food service organizations across the region to deal with the increase in people “struggling with food access.”

Councillor Diane Ballantyne asked McMann to expand on how declaring intimate partner violence an epidemic would help improve the situation.

“How would that help our county if we chose to follow that particular process?” she asked.

“When we can reframe it as an epidemic, that allows us to think about it more holistically,” McMann explained.

“So then it gives us a better framework from which to address the root causes of violence and also to start to talk about how it’s transmitted … we know that it is transmitted intergenerationally and that folks who grow up in environments that are violent are more likely to experience violence themselves or could become violent themselves.”

McMann continued, “Can we look at implementing maybe more mental health strategies for folks?

“Can we look at implementing more education about violence, specifically in schools? And are there different lenses that we can take on this that can help us to address those root causes?”

McMann also said framing the issue as a public health concern might help reduce some of the stigma abuse victims have to contend with.

“When we think about it as a public health issue, then we can help to avoid some of the victim blaming that goes on in our society,” she explained.

Councillor Mary Lloyd noted that in addition to intimate partner violence, human trafficking is another form of abuse that seems to be on the rise.

“Are we working on … trying to bring those two things closer together? Because they do tie together in many ways,” she said.

“Trafficking often presents as intimate partner violence,” agreed McMann.

“Trafficking is not about people getting … captured by the side of the road and thrown into shipping containers; that’s a movie misunderstanding.

“What trafficking usually involves is a trafficker getting into a relationship with a person who they want to target and then kind of building on that relationship.”

She added, “Usually when people are being trafficked … they think they’re in a relationship and that their trafficker is their boyfriend or girlfriend or romantic partner.

“I think if we can do the work of trying to address intimate partner violence on a systemic level, that will probably go a long way towards preventing trafficking as well.”

Council received the presentation as information, leaving the path forward on the delegation’s request unclear.

Warden Andy Lennox told the Advertiser the nature of the request suggests that input from Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health might be needed.

However, he noted, any member of county council could elect to bring forward a motion on the proposal.