Island not exempt from increase in domestic violence during COVID-19 pandemic

MANITOULIN – A recent Statistics Canada crowdsourcing survey found that young women are more likely to be concerned about violence at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Echoing a similar survey conducted in the early stages of the pandemic, young women aged 15 to 24 were “significantly more likely to report that they were very or extremely anxious about the possibility of violence in the home (12 percent) relative to men in the same age group (8 percent). Overall, 8.7 percent of women and 6.5 percent of men who responded were very or extremely anxious.

The concerns may be well-founded. Globally, reports show an increase of 20 to 30 percent in domestic violence since the COVID-19 lockdown began. Data provided by Brad Mack, staff sergeant and operations manager for United Chiefs and Councils of Manitoulin (UCCM) Anishnaabe Police Service showed 17 domestic violence reports since the start of self-isolation on March 15 compared to an average of 11 reports over the same period during the previous three years throughout the six communities served by UCCM Police—an increase of more than 50 percent. There has been little to no change for the same period in other types of crime occurrences. While it is too early to draw conclusions from this, he warned that if someone finds themselves in a potentially dangerous situation, they should contact the police, the crisis team, local health clinics, an elder or a trusted family member or friend to seek assistance. “We have many people working from home at this time, so even relying on a trusted co-worker to reach out and share some of the struggles” would be helpful, he suggested.

For the period of February 20 to May 18, the Manitoulin detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) had 168 domestic calls (these include weapons, violence as well as child custody matters), up from 135 for the same period in 2019 and 88 for 2018, said Constable Marie Ford. She cautioned against seeing this as a trend. “Although we can generally report an increase in the number of domestic type calls for service, it is far too soon to draw any short-term conclusions,” she said. “It would be irresponsible to attribute certain specific crimes with COVID-19 as a causal factor without proper analysis, which will take time.”

“Our current priority is to ensure our communities and our members are safe during this unprecedented health crisis,” Constable Ford said. “We recognize this is a very stressful time and realize the feelings of uncertainty and instability it has caused in our communities. We encourage everyone to support each other and that if you are aware of someone being in an abusive or dangerous relationship that you report it. The new text line at the Manitoulin Family Resources (MFR) is a great way for people who are in unsafe situations (domestic relationships) to get in touch with a counsellor and get advice or help.”

Marnie Hall, executive director of MFR, said that someone might not feel able to leave a potentially dangerous situation due to concerns over what could happen if they did speak out. “With the current COVID-19 situation they may be home with a violent or unpredictable partner and may be being monitored more closely. There may be legitimate concerns over what will happen. There are a lot of unknowns in this situation and so there is a lot of fear that may prevent someone from acting.”

Ms. Hall noted that there was a backlog in the family court system prior to COVID-19 and except in emergencies, the courts aren’t seeing cases at this time. “There has also been an early release of people in custody which may lead to violence or domestic violence if some of those offenders are released,” she said. 

We may find that a great deal of violence has occurred after this has passed and women feel safe to come forward. “Everyone is doing the best they can in these circumstances. Statistics will go up and down but the bottom line is we will continue to be available and to offer our services, while maintaining health and safety and social distancing guidelines.”

She added that MFR phone lines also provide an entry point for women who want to work with an assigned counsellor on an ongoing basis. For example, if someone is dealing with mental health issues and/or past trauma and currently aren’t in critical situation but need some counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they can access services by making the call.

In Wiikwemkoong, the Nookomisnaang Shelter for Victims of Family Violence operated by Wikwemikong Health Centre is restricted for intake to Wiikwemkoong residents only due to the travel ban that was implemented effective April 9. In a May 14 video, shelter manager Mary Pheasant reassured residents that the shelter is an essential service and will continue to provide a safe haven for victims of family violence. However, for anyone seeking shelter or services from outside of Wiikwemkoong, the shelter will provide assistance in the form of referrals to local shelters and services.

In a May 13 media release, Jill Dunlop, associate minister of Children and Women’s Issues for Ontario, announced an additional $1 million in funding to help front-line agencies adapt to remote service delivery and ensure continued operation during COVID-19. “Clearly, these extraordinary times are creating extraordinary challenges. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak there has been an increased risk of gender-based violence for many individuals who have been staying home and practicing physical distancing for weeks now,” said Ms. Dunlop. “It is crucial that Ontarians who have experienced or are at risk of sexual assault, gender-based violence or human trafficking have continued access to counselling and other critical services they need to stay safe, heal and rebuild their lives.”

In an emergency, always call 911. The non-emergency police number is 1-888-310-1122. To contact MFR, the Haven House Shelter and crisis line is 1-800-465-6788 or 705-377-5160. The text line is 705-968-0499. The telephone number for Nookomisnaang Shelter is 705-859-1542.

The Expositor reached out to the Wikwemikong Tribal Police Service for their statistics on domestic violence calls but did not receive a response by press time Monday.