Alberta shelters brace for domestic violence surge linked to COVID-19

Women’s shelters and sexual assault centres in Alberta are preparing to face an expected surge in domestic violence linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Relief organizations have reported evidence of sex and gender-based violence spiking after disasters and emergencies around the world, including in the United States after Hurricane Katrina, and experts warn economic stress and quarantines could exacerbate existing abusive relationships.

“There is no doubt that the demands on the capacity of our agency and agencies across the province and across the country are going to increase as this pandemic sticks around,” said Mary Jane James, CEO of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton.

In a Wednesday interview with CBC’s Radio Active, James said more people have been asking for help in recent weeks. Since Monday, 37 people in crisis have contacted the centre, which recently doubled its staff and volunteers.

James said groups disproportionately at risk include seniors experiencing homelessness and Albertans with disabilities, mental illness or addictions. 

“When you layer any one or more of those onto trauma that they’ve experienced or are continuing to experience, then you’ve got a situation that’s quite explosive and quite dangerous actually,” she said.

Helping homebound family members in abusive relationships is one challenge connected to the pandemic.

Omar Yaqub is the executive director of the Islamic Family and Social Services Association. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

“Our primary concern is an increase in domestic violence because of the tension and anxiety that results from keeping people in close quarters for prolonged periods of time,” said Omar Yaqub, the executive director of the Islamic Family and Social Services Association in northeast Edmonton. 

Supporting violence survivors who test positive for COVID-19 or are showing symptoms would be difficult as they cannot travel to a shelter, Yaqub added.

Shelters look abroad for advice

Jan Reimer, executive director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, said her organization has asked shelters in Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore for advice on responding to COVID-19.

International experts are organizing a webinar to educate and prepare Alberta shelters, Reimer said.

Shelters’ ability to house increasing numbers of abuse survivors remains limited, though, she said.

Data from the ACWS reveals Edmonton shelters turned down more than 6,000 requests last year.

Demand for counselling also already exceeds the supply of professionals who can provide it. The Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, for example, has an appointment wait list of five to six months. 

Reimer said shelters could most use financial support right now, considering many have stopped accepting donations in person.

The provincial government announced this week that charitable and non-profit groups will receive $60 million to help people most affected by COVID-19.

James said she does not yet know how that support would benefit her organization.

“I hope it will at least be interim relief to be able to hire some more qualified and experienced psychologists to deal with this trauma,” she said.

Resources available now

Though some in-person support services, including the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, are no longer open to the public, phone lines and online support remains available.

  • SACE’s support and information line is active between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. at 780-423-4121 and trained volunteers answer texts sent to 1-866-403-8000.
  • IFSSA’s help line is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. at 780-900-2777.
  • ACWS’s help line is open 24/7 at 1-866-331-3933.

Anyone facing immediate danger should call 911.

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