COVID-19: When Home is Not Safe

By SUSAN MINUK

Social isolation is having direct and negative impact on women and children experiencing domestic and sexual violence and child abuse. In Canada, statistics collected during the COVID pandemic show that one in 10 women are extremely concerned about suffering abuse during this period.

That was some of the stark information relayed by a panel of experts working on the frontlines, and presented in a May 6 virtual event, “COVID-19’s Unique Impact on Women: When Staying Home is Not Safe” by Holy Blossom Temple Women’s Advocacy Group.

The panel featured Pearl Rimer, director of research at Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre; Janice Shaw, manager of the Woman Abuse Program at Jewish Family and Child Service of Greater Toronto; and Tamar Witelson, director of legal services at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic.

Jill Witkin, vice-president of tikkun olam at Holy Blossom Temple, was moderator.

The overriding question posed was, “As frontline professionals, how has COVID-19 affected your organization’s service delivery?”

“Our biggest concern is that children no longer have their circle of protective adults they can talk to or who can keep an eye on them,” said Rimer. “They have very limited access to teachers, child care staff, even to their neighbours, parents and caregivers.”

She said there has been a “huge” drop in calls to child protection services – about 30-50 per cent down across the country.

JF&CS’s Shaw agreed there has been a reduction in reported domestic violence.

“It’s part of what the media are calling the ‘eerie silence’ that is going on, which is scary for those of us working in the field,” she said.

JF&CS is facing some of the same issues as prior to the current crisis, “but the intensity has magnified ten-fold.” Fears among women that their children will be safe during visits with fathers have “intensified.”

During COVID, “we have shifted into crisis counseling,” Shaw said. “Our workers are calming women down, trying to ground them and to help them stay present in the moment.”

Witelson of the Schlifer clinic said it’s important to get the message out that Family Courts are still operating to hear urgent matters.

Where should women turn if in trouble?

Shaw advised calling 911 for emergencies. She said shelters are open and required to follow health protocols and social distancing.

Sometimes hotels are used to house women. Witelson said that if a woman has physical issues that have taken her to hospital, and if she presents with any COVID symptoms and does not have a safe place to go, the hospital will admit her, “and that also facilitates her moving into a shelter if it becomes available.”

As for children who are struggling because they lack safe space  and people to talk to, “it’s really important for us to help children feel safe during unpredictable times,” said Rimer. “We should be saying to kids, ‘Come and talk to me if you have worries or questions.’ Make it okay if they want to talk to other safe and trusting adults.”

Shaw advised victims of abuse to develop a code word, “something very simple if [someone] is in trouble. We will call the police and get some intervention. Because we are a trauma induced program it just takes longer to get to the same place as we would have pre-COVID.”

Despite quarantines and lockdowns, “do not give up hope,” Witelson said. “We are continuing to provide services.”For a list of resources visit: https://holyblossom.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/wag-covid-19-panel-resource-list-pdf.pdf