Silence on the phone line to the Jean Scott Transition house in Hope has Anna Gladue worried that the women who need help are not able to find a safe moment and space to make the call.
Normally around this time of year, Hope’s only shelter for women at risk of or fleeing violence would be receiving three to five calls a day. They would range from people experiencing chronic homelessness, trying to make a plan and flee from an abusive situation as well as calls from police and the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
“Our call volume has completely dropped off the face of the earth,” said Gladue, program manager for the house. The phone lines went silent around the time provincial health orders around COVID started to come into effect. And while some phone assessments were being done between the 15th to 30th of March, none have been done since late March.
The lack of calls contrasts sharply with a 300 per cent surge in calls to the Battered Women’s Support Services crisis line. Maryam Monsef, Canada’s Minister for Women and Gender Equality, said recent consultations revealed increased rates of family and gender-based violence of 20 to 30 per cent in some parts of the country.
With the safety of women top of mind, as well as their privacy, a phone call has always been the preferred way for Gladue and her team to hear from people. Their 604-869-5191 number is still staffed 24 hours a day.
“It makes me very uncomfortable because I know that there are people out there that need our services and need to access us but maybe just can’t find the place or the time,” Gladue said.
Before COVID-19, women experiencing violence would take the opportunity of a partner leaving for work or off running an errand to make the call. “If abusers aren’t moving and aren’t leaving the house then it can create some serious challenges for women,” Gladue said.
“In addition to that they don’t want to sort of ruffle any feathers if they make that move (to call),” Gladue said. “We know that the most dangerous time for a woman who is fleeing is that time where she actually does make the plan to leave and is packed and walking out the door.”
Women who need to can now text 604-869-1872 or email firstname.lastname@example.org if they cannot make the call. “We have to tread very carefully because safety is of utmost importance when we’re working with women in these situations,” Gladue said of these methods of communication. “We don’t want to leave a paper trail where people can access that.”
Self-isolation at the transition house
With COVID-19, women have added worries about whether they can isolate safely in a transition house, how to find housing as well as other barriers said executive director of the Hope and Area Transition Society (HATS) Gerry Dyble.
“We’re in a bit of a pressure cooker and you can only keep the lid on for so long. And then the lid blows,” she said. Dyble, who has been working in this field for two decades, anticipates increased calls and increased demands for services as the pandemic goes on.
The transition house has eight beds and can accomodate up to 10 people including women with their children. During the pandemic response, however, staff are ensuring people don’t share rooms so the capacity has gone down to four spaces. Yet they are nowhere near capacity, only one space is occupied now and this person came to the house before the pandemic took hold in B.C.
Dyble stressed the transition house has an isolation plan should women and their children need to self-isolate there. “(We have) a large family room, bedroom that they would stay in, that’s adjacent to a playroom,” she said. BC Housing and HATS are also able to secure motel spaces. “They need to know that we do have an isolation plan in place, it is safe. We have all the protective equipment in place,” Dyble said.
Gladue said she is thankful for her staff, essential workers who keep the facility open 24 hours a day even during COVID-19 measures.
What can family, community do?
Before the pandemic, women experiencing family violence would have “more eyes on them” in the form of interactions with family, friends and community members Gladue said. These connections may convince women to make the call for help and without these connections, isolation increases.
Gladue recommends people reach out in ways that are safe – checking in when delivering groceries and checking in to see if they are OK. “The community can get behind their friends and just be checking on people,” Gladue said. And be aware of what is going on with your neighbours, Dyble adds, including whether they are seeing children outside playing. “That always sends a red flag up for me. Why aren’t they outside playing? Why aren’t they engaging?” she said.
People who are concerned can also call the transition house to get more information to help someone in their life who might be experiencing family violence.
“We’re open, that we are an essential service, that we’re fully staffed and we’re open 24 hours a day seven days a week, and there’s always staff on site,” Gladue said. “So even if they can get a chance to call us in the middle of the night, there’s somebody here to answer the phone.”
People can reach the Jean Scott Transition house by calling 604-869-5191, texting 604-869-1872 or emailing email@example.com.
The Hope and Area Transition Society is also still running counselling for women, led by Maureen Hickey. She’s keeping in contact with her clients remotely, and has set up a virtual group meeting. Intakes of new clients are also happening, she can be reached at 604-869-6299.
Kari Larson is also reaching out to families as part of her work facilitating programs geared towards children and their families struggling with experiences of violence and abuse. Her work in schools is on hold for the time being, yet she can still be reached at 604-869-6266.
Battered Women’s Support Services, who work to provide women safe spaces at transition houses and shelters, can also be reached at 1-855-687-1868, or by text 604-652-1867 and email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The multilingual phone service VictimLinkBC can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-800-563-0808 or by email to VictimLinkBC@bc211.ca. Children and youth in B.C. can call the Helpline for Children at 310-1234, they are not required to give their names.
People can also call and provide anonymous information on “specific cases of domestic abuse” to Crime Stoppers at 1-855-448-8477.