Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Holidays hard for at-risk women: shelter CEOs

Mothers, kids 'trying to tough it out'

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Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press Files
Women at risk feel a lot of pressure to keep the family together during the Christmas season, despite real hardships, a shelter director says.

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Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press Files Women at risk feel a lot of pressure to keep the family together during the Christmas season, despite real hardships, a shelter director says.

CHRISTMAS is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but the co-ordinator of Manitoba's women's shelters says it can be a struggle for many at-risk women and their children.

"They don't want to come to shelters. They're trying to tough it out. They're trying to get through Christmas without disturbing their children," said Deena Brock, who worked for two years at Nova House in Selkirk before assuming the role of provincial co-ordinator.

Marlene Bertrand, whose career spans more than 30 years working with women's shelters (she's currently with Osborne House in Winnipeg), said shelters are relatively empty on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But around Dec. 27 and 28, the number of clients typically spikes.

"Lots of people find Christmas a very pressured time," Bertrand said, and people under pressure sometimes turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, including violence.

"It's not always the experience for families as it's portrayed... " she said of the holiday season.

Winnipeg Police Service statistics indicate officers responded to more than 1,200 domestic calls in December 2012. About 40 per cent of them were within the last week-and-a-half of the month.

The RCMP -- which cover rural parts of the province, not including communities such as Brandon and Morden with their own police services -- specifically defines not just a domestic call, but a domestic-violence call, as physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse committed or threatened by a past or present spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend or other intimate partner.

In December 2012, RCMP responded to more than 120 domestic-violence calls. Again, about 40 per cent came within the last week-and-a-half of the month.

During the first two weeks of December this year, the RCMP only had about 20 domestic-violence calls.

The volume of telephone calls received through the provincial crisis line remains also drops off in December. Statistics from the Manitoba government's Family Services Department show for the past three years there have been fewer calls in December than in the month before or after. Last December, a total of 902 calls were received while in November and January, there were 973 and 1,089 received, respectively.

Brock said many of the women who call crisis lines in December just want counselling.

During the first week of December, Nova House was empty as was Genesis House in Winkler, although both had clients in the second week, Brock said. The Thompson Crisis Centre, which services the province north of The Pas, is also quiet right now, but staff there are anticipating it will get busier by the end of the month.

"The holidays are over," Brock said. "Reality starts to set in. The bills start to pile up and tempers start to flare."

Bertrand said the days that led up to the first Christmas she spent working at a shelter in 1983 were like a "black cloud" over her head.

"I felt so badly for the people," said Bertrand, who was at home on Christmas Day with her own family.

When she returned to work at the shelter, she asked the women who stayed there how Christmas went and was taken aback by the response she got.

"There was no fighting. Nobody tipped the table over," the women told her. "We had a good meal. We had gifts."

Bertrand said the women formed connections with each other in a way they wouldn't have with their friends or family members because the women were all going through the same experience.

Any woman who feels unsafe at home or with her partner is encouraged to call the confidential Manitoba Association of Women's Shelters crisis line at 1-877-977-0007.

roberta.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2013 A4

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