March to May “eerily quiet” says Northern Haven exec.

Few calls to women’s shelters, but across the Canada the murder rate increased

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

Throughout the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, Northern Haven Support Society was open to help women in crisis, but had very few crisis calls. At the same time, across Canada the number of women killed by their intimate partners increased.

Disasters cause an uptick in domestic violence, says Shelly Ferguson, executive-director at Northern Haven Support Society. Starting in May 2012, “our (Northern Haven’s) calls doubled, and it’s been non-stop ever since.” This was “a year to the day,” after the 2011 Slave Lake fire.

Established in the early 2000s, Northern Haven supports Slave Lake and surrounding communities. It runs both an emergency shelter for women and an outreach program with support for anyone experiencing any form of domestic violence. Both are open, with health precautions to protect against COVID-19.

Ferguson says, before COVID-19, the world already had a global pandemic – domestic violence. In general in Canada, a woman is murder, by her domestic partner every five days. During COVID, this increased.

On May 6, 2020, the Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS) wrote an article ‘Ten cases of men killing women in Canada in the last 36 days.’ For example, on April 1, two women were killed by their partners one in Sundre, Alberta and the other in Ontario.

‘Slave Lake women’s shelter fielded 500 crisis calls in 2019’ is the headline of a January 15, 2020 Leader article.

In 2019, says the article, of these 500 calls, 393 were requests for admission to the shelter. Some of these calls were from the same women. Over the course of the year, 36 women and 30 children stayed at the shelter.

Before mid-March, the shelter and community outreach were receiving the normal number of calls, says Ferguson. However, from mid-March to May, the shelter wasn’t receiving any calls. The same thing happened across the province. It was “eerily quiet.” Domestic violence hadn’t been cured, but it wasn’t being reported.

She continues although the number of calls was low, some factors have increased the likelihood of domestic violence and murder. These include isolation, unemployment, having the children home and homeschooling.

Ferguson knows of at least two reasons women weren’t calling. One – women were worried about getting COVID-19 if they went to the shelter. Two – women were never alone, so couldn’t call for help.

Northern Haven promotes six steps that the community can help identify domestic violence.

These include: 1. “When it is safe to do so, virtually check in on your friends, family, and colleagues.” and 4. “If they want help, support them with safety planning.”

Ferguson has also seen some abusers use COVID-19 to abuse their spouse or children. For example, in the case of joint custody, claiming they can’t return the children because they have COVID-19, even though there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the area at the time.

Northern Haven community services staff have been meeting via phone or ‘Zoom’ to fill out COVID-19 relief applications, safety plans, and other forms of support. These include the parenting service team lead helping parents with homeschooling advice, giving out a storybook about COVID-19, and other things.

“We’ve had fantastic support from the government,” says Ferguson. They’ve sent masks, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer and other tools to protect against COVID-19. “We were already the cleanest house in Slave Lake,” but now the shelter is even cleaner.

As people are able to get out more, women will be able to once again phone the shelter without their partner hearing, says Ferguson. Northern Haven community services and shelter are both ready and able to help when the call comes in.

The community can also help. Since last November, Northern Haven’s board has had the #SLSpeaksOut campaign. This is to raise awareness and remind people to intervene or call the Northern Haven or the police if they suspect domestic violence.

The catalyst for the campaign was a murder of woman last year in Edmonton, says Ferguson. Many people in the apartment building heard her screaming, but no one called the police. This resonated with one of the board members, who came up with the idea for the campaign.

On August 15, the board will also be having its annual school supply campaign. The board and volunteers will be wearing masks and standing outside Walmart to accept donations.

At this time, Northern Haven isn’t accepting anything used, only new supplies.

Women who wish to speak with a crisis intervention worker can call 1-877-214-4418. Community Service program information is available by calling 780-843-1090.

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