Women in abusive relationships at greater risk with social distancing measures

'If you are in a dangerous situation, call us, and we’ll work out a way to help': Castaldi

GUELPH – Helping women and children leave situations of domestic abuse is tricky enough. Doing it during a pandemic “adds a whole other layer of complexity,” says Sly Castaldi, executive director of Women in Crisis of Guelph-Wellington.

“During the pandemic the message is ‘stay inside.’ That doesn’t work for a woman trapped in an abusive relationship. Women should not have to choose between pandemics,” Castaldi said in an interview on April 2.

Domestic violence is a pandemic too, she stressed.

The numbers speak for themselves.

According to the Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services:

  • more than six per cent of married, common-law, same-sex, separated and divorced female spouses in Ontario report experiencing physical/sexual assault by a spousal partner (2009);
  • more than two-thirds (69%) of violent incidents against women are committed in private residences, such as the victim and/or offender’s home (2011);
  • in 2009/2010, there were almost 31,000 admissions of women and children to the 171 shelters in Ontario that provided services for abused women;
  • a one-day snapshot survey found 3,459 residents in Ontario shelters for abused women (54% women, 46% dependent children). 74% of women were there primarily because of abuse (2010); and
  • almost 6 in 10 women (59%) with children who were assaulted by spouses said their children heard or saw the violent episode (2009).

Castaldi said there’s been an increase in crisis calls this week and that could rise as the added stress of COVID-19 takes its toll.

There’s fear of the disease, perhaps a job loss, money worries, children cooped up for weeks now, everyone stuck indoors together – all compounded over time, and who knows how long this will last.

There’s never an excuse for violence, “but if you’re in an unhealthy relationship already, these added stressors can make it even more dangerous,” Castaldi said.

It may also be more difficult for a woman to call the crisis line because she has less time alone. It’s okay to leave a message for a safe time to call back, and staff can help clear browsers so no one knows the call history.

But call, Castaldi said. “Our services look different right now, but we are still here.”

And it is different. Staff are working remotely, the administrative offices are closed, group and face-to-face counselling has stopped, but phone and other supports continue.

But with the new social distancing requirements, Marianne’s Place, the emergency shelter, has less capacity. Women and children are met with staff wearing gowns, gloves and masks and screened for COVID-19.

“The communal living environment and social distancing is really challenging. We’re doing our best,” Castaldi said.

But what they really need are living quarters with kitchens that can accommodate a woman and her kids to wait out the pandemic.

Anyone who has found themselves with empty accommodations is asked to contact Castaldi.

“Finding housing for women – that’s the biggest thing right now,” she said.

All this costs money.

On April 2, Attorney General Doug Downey announced a one-time emergency payment of more than $2.7 million to community agencies that support services for victims of domestic violence and other violent crimes during the COVID-19 crisis.

These include victim crisis assistance organizations like Women in Crisis as well as Indigenous organizations and those based in rural areas.

At the same time, Downey announced $1.3 million in technology to help courts and tribunals continue the transition to remote operations.

“This emergency payment will ensure victims of crime, particularly those who are experiencing domestic violence, get the help they need to stay safe and healthy during this crisis,” Downey stated in a press release.

Castaldi said she is waiting to learn the details for Women in Crisis.

But no matter how that works out, “If you are in a dangerous situation, call us, and we’ll work out a way to help,” she stressed.

The crisis line number is 519-836-5710 or 1-800-265-7233.