Calgary experiencing 'shadow pandemic' of domestic violence, experts say

·3 min read

Patterns of domestic violence calls to police and support agencies are mirroring the patterns of COVID-19 in what experts are calling a "shadow pandemic."

Representatives from the Calgary Police Service, the Sagesse Domestic Violence Prevention Society, and the Calgary Women's Emergency Shelter addressed the media on Monday to raise awareness for family violence prevention month.

They discussed the city's continuing struggle with domestic violence, which police described as an "epidemic" last February — before COVID-19 impacted Alberta.

But when the pandemic prompted a lockdown in March, police and experts said that calls reporting domestic violence fell about 12 per cent, but not because domestic violence was decreasing.

Rather, victims are sometimes isolating with their abusers, and have reduced opportunities to call for help.

"What we attribute that to is the inability to report," Staff Sgt. Paul Wozney, who is in charge of the CPS domestic conflict unit, said at the press conference.

"Victims are living with their abusers, and they're not in any sort of a position to address that reporting piece."

And according to Andrea Silverstone, the executive director of Sagesse, when Calgary's lockdown ended, calls for help jumped back up.

"As soon as lockdown ended, and we saw also a spike in the rates of the pandemic, we also saw a spike in the rates of domestic violence calls. And that's been seen across all jurisdictions," she said.

"It's a shadow pandemic."

'Extreme' danger escalating, experts say

Between January and September, CPS said it responded to nine per cent more domestic incidents than average — but 10 per cent fewer calls involving threatened or actual violence.

However, Kim Ruse, the CEO of the Calgary Women's Emergency Shelter, said those numbers don't tell the whole story.

"There is a danger assessment score that shelters use to rate the lethality that women are facing, [and] in the first six months of this year, the 'extreme' category is up 47 per cent compared from last year," Ruse said.

"And so, we're seeing more weapons, we're seeing more diversity and complexity in the violence."

Silverstone told CBC News last February that, statistically, economies that trend toward boom-and-bust cycles — like Alberta's — tend to see higher rates of domestic violence. Unemployment, underemployment and financial stress can exacerbate tension within families.

At the news conference, Ruse said the pandemic has added another stressor — financially, mentally and emotionally.

"It is creating more tension in families, it is creating situations where you no longer have those usual escapes," she said. "The tensions are higher, which is leading to situations that may not have occurred without a pandemic in place."

Informal support systems crucial

Typically, about 65 per cent of domestic violence victims do not access formal services such as calling the police or shelters, Ruse said.

They are more likely to rely on informal support systems that include confiding in trusted friends and family.

That 65 per cent became the most vulnerable when the pandemic prompted physical distancing, quarantine and isolation, because their informal support systems became harder to access.

But during the pandemic, calls to informal support systems still jumped by 200 per cent — and according to Silverstone, shows what an invaluable resource informal support systems are.

She reiterated at the news conference that with masks and physical distancing, it is possible for Albertans to be there for potential victims.

"Every Albertan does have a role in ending violence, and … we have to learn new ways of doing that during this time of the pandemic," she said.

Sagesse can be reached at 403-234-7337.

People looking for help can call 211, or the Connect Family and Sexual Abuse Network at 1-877-237-5888 for sexual abuse, or 403-234-7233 for domestic abuse.

The Family Violence Information Line offers 24-hour support in more than 170 languages. It can be reached at 310-1818.