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B.C. human rights observers concerned by spike in family violence amid COVID-19

Support organization in Vancouver has seen a 300 per cent increase in calls


April 20, 2020
By Todd Humber


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Photo: Charday Penn/Getty Images

Advocates for the rights of women and children in British Columbia are shining a light on the rise in family violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

B.C. Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender says she is deeply concerned that the Battered Women’s Support Society of Vancouver has reported a 300 per cent increase in daily calls in recent weeks.

Fewer ‘eyes on families’

In a joint statement, Govender and Jennifer Charlesworth, the B.C. Representative for Children and Youth, say social distancing can increase the likelihood that abusers are exerting power and control and there are fewer “eyes on families” during the crisis.

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Charlesworth says there are also increased pressures on shelters and fewer places where people can go to safely escape violence.

Angela Marie MacDougall, the executive director of the Battered Women’s Support Society, says she travelled to China last summer to meet with activists about the #MeToo movement.

She says when the novel coronavirus first broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan, those activists warned her of a surge in violence and she knew the society needed to act in case it happened in B.C.

MacDougall says her group’s crisis line is typically available during weekdays, but it quickly scaled up to operating 24 hours a day and calls have progressively increased.

Isolation a major factor

She says one worker recently received 18 calls in a shift, and before the pandemic one worker would have received about four calls.

“Isolation’s already a major factor in abusive relationships,” says MacDougall, adding that violence against women is already a long-standing pandemic in Canada.

She says there has not been sufficient support from different levels of government in Canada for organizations that help women and children fleeing violence to adapt to physical distancing requirements.

Hundreds of women were already being turned away from transition houses every month due to lack of space, MacDougall notes.

“In some cases, what we’re dealing with right now can be a perfect storm in some families,” says Charlesworth, pointing out that the second-largest group of people that reports concerns about child well-being are teachers and school administrators.

School closures hurting intelligence

She says school closures during the pandemic mean child protection advocates and services “lose that intelligence.”

Charlesworth says facilitating access to phones and internet connectivity is vital so women and young adults can access support at the same time as they’re practising physical distancing.

“So, if someone is out getting some fresh air they do have some way of connecting if they’re not feeling safe.”