Fewer calls for domestic violence support in Manitoba has experts concerned

Heeding public health advice and staying home has meant many victims of domestic violence may have been isolated the past nine months.

At the start of the pandemic, domestic violence experts were sounding the alarm over their concerns that people who needed help were not having the opportunity to escape or too afraid of COVID-19 to get out.

Read more: Empty Manitoba family shelters expected to fill up as coronavirus restrictions loosen

According to the province, from April to September last year, 878 women and 683 children accessed support at shelters across the country. This year during the same time frame, meanwhile, only 501 women and 359 children accessed those supports.

Calls to the province’s 24/7 domestic violence support line (1-877-977-0007) are also down, while the new texting service launched in May has been accessed 183 times since it started.

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That service can be accessed by texting 204-792-5302 or 204-805-6682.

Read more: ‘Back to square one’: Calls to domestic violence lines jump again as coronavirus surges

Const. Rob Carver with the Winnipeg Police Service says he’s surprised the service hasn’t seen an increase in calls since COVID-19 was found in Manitoba.

“Very strangely we have not in Winnipeg (see a spike in calls). We know that in jurisdictions, not only in Canada but around the world, specifically the UK there’s been lots of discussion about how those cases, incidents of domestic violence have increased significantly,” Carver said.

“We have been monitoring this very closely since the early stages of the pandemic. We’ve simply not seen that. In actuality, we haven’t seen a statically significant change in the numbers month over month since the pandemic hit,” he said.

“We know the concerns in a broad sense that staying home maybe isn’t the safest pace for someone in an abusive or violent relationship. That puts victims and potential victims at a greater risk.”

Carver says he knows sometimes victims of domestic violence are hesitant to bring police into the situation, but he says the have other options to offer support. He adds that he understands the difficulties people face when fleeing a violent domestic relationship.

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Domestic violence ‘shadow pandemic’ on the rise in Edmonton

“The average person can’t imagine the difficulties. Again, as a former domestic violence investigator, I’ve had a victim and their children in the back of my car while my partner took them with hastily packed suitcases to a shelter,” Carver said.

“It’s incredibly difficult. I see the expressions on these people’s faces — on their kids’ faces. It’s one of the most difficult situations to be in. We try and help but we are part of a broad approach to make sure we can intervene.

“We know abusers will attempt to isolate their victims on a slow, methodical process. That’s because those victims are less protected if they’re isolated. If we have any message, it’s to try and stay connected, let the people around you know you are afraid and you might be subject to violence, coercion or intimidation and let them know.”

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Manitoba RCMP data also shows the numbers are down since the pandemic hit — about 34 per cent from last year.

Data from March to the end of June 2019 shows 2,105 calls came in for domestic violence, while over the same period this year, 1,386 calls were received.

Read more: Resources to help with domestic violence available for Manitobans

Deena Brock is the provincial coordinator for the Manitoba Association of Women’s Shelters and says while it’s important for public health for people to stay home, home may not be the safest place for some Manitobans.

“We do have some concerns going back into a more restrictive structure for women who are perhaps at home and having to succumb to more isolation. That is a bit of a concern,” Brock said. “If they can’t get out they can’t get away if there are problems in the home. That is something on our radar to keep getting the message out — that if you can leave or make a phone call or text, those numbers are available for women to be able to contact a crisis line.

“It seems like there are more calls and people coming to shelter now, it seems that in November and October it‘s increasing a little.”

Brock says with heightened stress impacting people, it can be a trigger for some abusers. 

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“It becomes uncomfortable and can be a hotbed for violence starting to happen,” Brock said. “That is basically the concern. If people are uncomfortable at home, they may be taking that out on the spouse or their children so it’s a concern.”

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Domestic violence the most common call for Winnipeg police – Nov 4, 2019

And while many who experience domestic violence are hesitant to reach out for help, Carver says it may be the only way to finally get out of a dangerous situation.

“I can tell you as someone who’s been on the front lines of that for years, the only way the cycle stops is by outside intervention. You won’t handle it yourself, it will escalate,” Carver said.

“You and your kids are at risk. There are outside resources that will help.”

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