May 28, 2020

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Opinion

Pandemic isolation creates potential for abuse

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Women wait in line for their plate of dinner, following social distancing as much as possible, in a small dining space at a women's shelter in Winnipeg. </p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Women wait in line for their plate of dinner, following social distancing as much as possible, in a small dining space at a women's shelter in Winnipeg.

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SINCE COVID-19 self-isolation began in this country, at least 10 women have died as a result of domestic violence. The latest apparent victim was last week here in Winnipeg: 46-year old Marie Morin was killed on Friday; her 45-year old partner, Brandon Carl Starnyski, has since been charged with second-degree murder.

On April 11, another Winnipeg woman was killed as a result of alleged domestic violence, leaving three children without a mother. Police launched a Canadawide manhunt for her 42-year-old partner on April 20; they had originally thought 34-year-old Julie Racette’s death was the result of a medical emergency, but upon investigation determined it was a homicide.

Domestic violence is already an issue for Winnipeg police. Close to 17,000 calls were made to WPS in 2018 regarding domestic violence, up 3.3 per cent from 2017 and an increase of almost 10 per cent over five years. Manitoba has the dubious distinction of being one of the country’s homicide capitals. It also has among the highest rates of death from domestic violence. In other words, if you live in Manitoba and you’re a woman, your chances of dying as a result of domestic violence are higher than if you live in Ontario.

When the statistics are tabulated for 2020, domestic violence numbers are anticipated to be even higher. Confinement, financial stress, child-rearing struggles and the fear of the unknown are pushing people to the brink. It’s creating what many worry may be an epidemic of domestic violence across the country.

Despite this, Manitoba’s women’s shelters have noted a decline in use. Some suggest it’s because of the COVID-19 protocols in place to prevent outbreaks, which require women to go through screening prior to being granted entry into shelters.

Intimate-partner violence is just one part of this toxic picture, in which homes are not safe sanctuaries. Violence against children is also an issue, and there hasn’t be a great deal of discussion about the effect the pandemic has on children’s safety.

According to Statistics Canada, Saskatchewan had the highest provincial rate of family violence against children in 2010 (the last year the statistics were available), but Manitoba ranked second (it is important to note that the territories had a significantly higher rate than any of the provinces).

Calls regarding child abuse, however, are expected to go down during the pandemic. Why? Because the mandated reporters — daycare workers, teachers, babysitters, clergy — may no longer have full contact with kids, so the opportunities to report abuse are lost. The violence goes underground.

Now that schools have stopped being the place where at-risk children could go to for solace and protection, there are concerns the self-quarantine issues will result in an escalation of child abuse for a variety of reasons.

First, there are fewer supports available to parents who are already struggling. With the closure of government agencies and organizations, there are fewer places parents can go for assistance if they need help coping.

As well, COVID-19 may lead to an increase in addiction-related behaviour, including drinking or drug abuse. The increase in available free time could put children at further risk of physical and sexual exploitation.

In addition, with children spending more time online, there’s a greater opportunity for them to be at risk for exploitation from online predators. This can be a real concern for parents who are trying to monitor a child’s computer use while also juggling their own workload.

If parents are health-care workers, they may be working longer hours and self-isolating within the home, putting additional pressure on one partner or older siblings to assist. This may exacerbate stress and could end in abuse, particularly sibling violence, which is an overlooked form of family violence.

Sibling violence goes beyond the usual squabbling between kids — it’s intense, violent and harmful, and can have long-term effects on victimized children.

At the beginning of April, the Trudeau government provided up to $26 million to Women’s Shelters Canada to distribute to approximately 575 violence-against-women shelters across the country. But not enough attention has been paid specifically to violence against children, and the effect COVID-19 will have on them.

If a home is already abusive, a child who is at risk has nowhere to hide. Self-isolation means essentially being kept hostage in a space that isn’t safe.

This would be an intolerable situation for anyone. For a child, it’s nothing short of tragic.

Shannon Sampert is a retired political scientist who works as a media consultant.

www.mediadiva.ca.

shannon@mediadiva.ca

Twitter: @CdnMediadiva

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