When Shelley (not her real name) realized that COVID-19 could leave those who are in similar circumstances to the ones she escaped four years ago at an increased risk for domestic violence, she reached out to the Pioneer to share her story of abuse, her worries for those who haven’t yet left abusive relationships and her words of encouragement.

Shelley left a volatile relationship after 12 years. As she healed, she began looking after other women and helped facilitate a support group for others who had endured abuse. While that support group has run its course, Shelley and the participants are still in contact through social media. As government officials asked residents to stay home during the pandemic, Shelley grew concerned about women stuck at home with abusive partners and shared her fears in an online chat with women from the support group.

“I’ve been thinking that this social isolation is very dangerous for women who are experiencing relationship abuse/intimate partner violence. Women are already isolated due to their circumstances, and the abusive behaviour of their partners likely will be escalating due to the effects of COVID-19,” Shelley wrote.

Talking with the Pioneer, she said that COVID-19 is bringing with it increased financial stresses, job uncertainty, health worries, additional childcare needs and a host of challenges that could cause increased tension in homes across the valley.

“All those extra stresses are in the household. There’s no break from the tension that could be happening,” she said.

Shelley is also worried about those whom self-isolation will prevent from having regular time away from their partners.

“When the abusive partner goes to work or when the woman goes to work, you would get a break from that person. Not only are women in that situation not getting a break, but there’s also extra stresses and we’re isolated so it’s even hard to go for a walk with a friend,” she said.

Before Shelley left her relationship, she found herself in the women’s washroom at the Columbia Valley Chamber of Commerce visitor centre looking at a sticker about a domestic violence hotline.

“I just stood there in the washroom taking a little bit more time and staring at that and praying that somehow I would get to the help I needed,” she said.

Shelley started therapy sessions by phone and worked up the courage to leave.

While she noted that domestic violence programs are shifting to help people from home during COVID-19, she’s not sure those who are trapped with their abusers will have the opportunity to call for help.

“How can a woman even get to a phone to have a one-hour counselling session?” she asked. “How do you set that up without your partner knowing?”

Long before COVID-19 arrived, Shelley got busted for calling her therapist when her abuser went through her phone records.

“It’s a lot more difficult to have some pri-vacy and for women to get help right now,” she said.

Staff at Family Dynamix offered suggestions for how those living with abusers can access support. In an email to the Pioneer, they said: “An abuser may take advantage of an already stressful situation to gain more control and may feel even more justified and escalate their isolation tactics during this time. If a woman finds herself in such a situation, there are several things she can do: create several plausible reasons for leaving the house at different times of the day or night; let trusted friends and neighbours know of your situation and develop a plan and visual signal for when you need help; practice how to get out safely and practice with your children; teach your children how to get help; call 1-800-200-3003 for support.”

As for her own healing, Shelley said: “It’s worth it to get the help and to make changes … The first step was just believing myself and trusting myself.”

She encourages those in difficult situations to breathe, to get out for walks, to be in the fresh air, to take good care of themselves, to try to get into virtual or telephone counselling and to check out https://www.whenlovehurts.ca

As for those who wonder if a friend is safe at home, she recommends checking up on the friend regularly to show her you care.

Family Dynamix said their Women’s Information and Safe Homes (WISH) pro-gram has had an increase in calls directly and indirectly related to COVID-19.

While Darren Kakuno, detachment commander for the Columbia Valley RCMP, is aware of concerns around increased domestic violence while people are asked to stay home, he said “we have been fortunate in that we have not seen an increase in reported domestic assaults in the Columbia Valley.”

Two domestic assaults were reported from March 1 to April 15 as COVID-19 con-cerns and precautions arose. During the same time period, that’s one fewer case than last year and the same number of reported domestic assaults as in 2018.

“My hope is that we can all continue to exercise patience with each other during these difficult times,” Kakuno said.

Help for those dealing with domestic violence

Submitted by staff of Family Dynamix Association’s domestic violence programs

The pandemic has presented huge challenges for shelters worldwide in terms of safety and training for staff, protection of clients, measures to contain an outbreak with-in a facility, helping staff work remotely while still supporting victims, and ensuring ad-equate resources are in place. In addition, as families are encouraged/advised to stay at home, women and children who are vulnerable to domestic abuse will be at greater risk.

We recognize that the current COVID-19 response strategies, including self-isola-tion, quarantine and working from home, could impose new or compounded risks to the safety and security of victims of domestic violence due to the constant presence of the abusive partner at home. This will likely escalate rates of domestic violence for an unforeseen period.

Family Dynamix is deemed “essential services,” and we are still operating and pro-viding support and services to assist women and their children who are at risk of abuse or leaving violence.

Help is available, at any time. You and your children will be supported and made safe, should you wish to leave your situation. We are here to help; you are not alone.

How do counseling and other services happen during self-isolation?

We are providing free remote counseling and other support services during the COVID-19 pandemic over the phone. Programs and services we deliver continue to be available in our community through phone appointments. Please call 250-342-5566 during office hours Monday to Friday from 8:30 to 4:30 (closed from 12 until 1) to book an appointment.

Are temporary accommodations available for survivors during COVID-19?

Family Dynamix does have access to temporary accommodations during COVID-19. Many shelters around the world were not prepared for a lockdown. For-tunately, Family Dynamix had the time to prepare and, with new protocols in place, continue the Women’s Information & Safe Homes (WISH) program.

We offer 24/7 safe, temporary accommodation, meals, safety planning and infor-mation for women and their children who are fleeing or are vulnerable to domestic abuse. Call 1-800-200-3003.

What advice do you have for those experiencing domestic violence during COVID-19?

• Access the local 24-hour help line at 1-800-200-3003 or call Family Dynamix during office hours at 250- 341-3963 or 250-342-5566.

• If you or someone else is in immediate danger, please call 911 immediately. Support is available from Police and Victim Services Workers 24/7 at 1-800-563-0808.

• Remain connected with your support networks, friends and families you can trust.

• Be aware of potential risks with the technology while using your phone, laptop, iPad and computer.

• If someone else has access to your device or you think they can get past your privacy and security settings, or you think your device has a spyware on it, be careful and find another device to use discreetly to access help when needed.

• Set up a new, safe email account to communicate with others that you trust.

• Change the passwords or passcodes on all your accounts, devices and emails.

• Check the privacy settings to disable the location services on all the devices and platforms you use, including social media accounts.

• Practice self-care. COVID-19 is causing uncertainty for many people, and get-ting through this time while experiencing abuse can feel really overwhelming. Taking the time to look after yourself can make a big difference in how you feel.

• Reach out for help. Do your best to stay connected with friends, family and neighbours either over the phone or online.

• Create a safety plan. A safety plan is a personalized, practical plan that in-cludes ways to remain safe while in a relationship, planning to leave, or after you leave. Remember that in moments of crisis, it is difficult to think clearly or make logical decisions about your safety. Having a safety plan laid out in advance can help you to protect yourself and your children at stressful times.

• Do not hesitate to call the Crisis Line at 1-800-200-3003 or 911.

What advice do you have for those who are concerned for a friend or loved one who may be experiencing domestic violence?

Seeing someone you care about being hurt is stressful. Do your best to stay con-nected. You can’t make decisions for them, but try to encourage your loved one to have a safety plan and think about their own well-being. Most of all, believe that what she is telling you is true.