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Calls to helplines jump during COVID-19 pandemic

'It's like a pressure cooker'

Several helplines for women experiencing violence at home are reporting dramatic increases in calls since public health measures aimed at fighting the spread of COVID-19 came into effect last spring.

The urgency and severity of many callers' situations have also intensified, said Angela MacDougall, the executive director of Battered Women's Support Services based in Vancouver.

"What women are saying is that it's like a pressure cooker in the house and there isn't a valve," she said in an interview.

The United Nations has called violence against women and girls a "shadow pandemic" as the COVID-19 crisis fuels social isolation and tensions caused by concerns over health, safety and financial security.

Claudine Thibaudeau, a social worker and clinical supervisor at the Montreal-based helpline SOS domestic violence, said the pandemic has become a "new tool" for abusers to gain power.

The helpline has fielded calls from women diagnosed with COVID-19 who were then kicked out by their abuser, she said, while others are confined to their homes, cut off from support.

As cases climb across Canada, particularly in Quebec, and several provinces tighten health restrictions again, "we're basically back to square one," said Thibaudeau.

SOS serves women across Quebec and received about 33,000 calls between April 2019 and last March. This year, Thibaudeau said calls spiked in April before levelling off in July, though it's hard to say how the pandemic contributed to the increase because the helpline has stepped up its outreach in recent years.

But calls from family, friends and even employers of women experiencing violence have increased significantly, she said, since public health restrictions mean victims are more isolated.

"They were more worried because they couldn't keep an eye on the situation."

Leaving an abusive relationship is already difficult and may require significant preparation, added Thibaudeau.

She said the pandemic has exacerbated existing fears and challenges as she explained the kinds of questions women are asking.

"If I go to a shelter now, if I decide to leave my violent partner today, how can I be sure that I'm going to be able to shop for a new place to live? And to go to court to get my kids?" she said. "Is the court system going to remain open or is it going to close down and for how long?"

In B.C., the Battered Women's crisis line received more than 1,800 calls in March, doubling the number of calls received for the same month a year earlier, said MacDougall. Calls more than tripled in April compared with the same month in 2019 before levelling off later in the summer, she said.

The number of calls the crisis line receives usually ticks up by five to 10 per cent each year, however the increases in the months corresponding with the start of the pandemic were "massive," said MacDougall.

In Toronto, the Assaulted Women's Helpline usually receives about 4,000 calls per month, said resource development manager Yvonne Harding.

This year, counsellors picked up more than 55,000 calls between March and September alone, she said. Call volume began ticking up in March and hit a peak of about 8,000 calls in June. An additional 11,630 calls didn't get through or were dropped before connecting.

Women have called the helpline from bathrooms or closets when their abuser was taking out the garbage, said Harding, who has also noticed an escalation in the severity of abusive behaviour in the calls.

"Where things maybe were at a level of emotional abuse and verbal abuse, they've crossed the line into physical abuse. Where things were already physical, it crossed another line into threats and fear for their safety and their life."



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