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Cochrane presentation discusses effect of pandemic on domestic violence

Co-founder of Big Hill Haven emergency shelter Patti Fisher explained the troubling trend during a presentation at the King Solomon Lodge last Friday.
Patti Fisher
Big Hill Haven intensive case manager Patti Fisher spoke at a presentation last Friday. Submitted photo.

A recent presentation in Cochrane highlighted the continued impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on family violence.

It is the pandemic within a pandemic, and it is right here in Cochrane.

Co-founder of Big Hill Haven emergency shelter Patti Fisher explained the troubling trend during a presentation at the King Solomon Lodge last Friday.

“When things were locked down, we realized women couldn’t call for help. They couldn’t reach a phone, they couldn’t go out and ask for help. They were more isolated, and the abuse was intensifying,” she said.

A registered social worker, Fisher has worked in the corporate sector and the non-profit field with vulnerable individuals and families for over 35 years.

The reason the alarming numbers are just now becoming evident, according to Fisher, is that during the lockdown period, victims did not feel safe enough to call for help, since their abuser was often as nearby as in the next room.

A study by The Learning Network out of Western Ontario University found reports of domestic abuse and family violence have increased around the world since social isolation and quarantine measures came into force.

During the lockdowns of 2020, the number of calls went down. When restrictions eased, calls went up and when restrictions tightened, calls went down.

Fisher did not have hard statistics available, but said when restrictions were lifted, it was not just the number but the nature of the calls that surprised her. The biggest surprise was the level of risk and danger local women were living with daily.

The picture was a bleak one for victims. The majority of the women who called had “very high danger assessment” scores – an abnormal level of intensity of violence Fisher describes as something not seen before anywhere in Alberta.

“For example, there was a six-month period where every woman I worked with had been strangled by her partner,” Fisher said in an interview.

“That used to be quite rare. That’s a very high-risk situation, and we’re seeing that constantly in Cochrane and area,” she said.

Strangulation victims are 750 per cent more likely to be killed than victims who have never been strangled, according to the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, a California-based program.

There has also been an increase in men threatening women with guns, according to Fisher.

She cited a few factors that may have contributed to increased domestic pressure during the pandemic.

“When people started not going in to work, when people started losing their jobs, financial stressors were higher, being at home all the time. If there were any mental health or addiction issues, those were intensified, and the victims couldn’t access help,” she said.

According to Fisher, the problem has to be addressed at the local level.

“We’re trying to build community capacity so women can reach out to a friend when they’re afraid to come to someone like me,” she said.

 “A majority of women will disclose to a friend, a neighbour, a massage therapist, a hairdresser, before they’ll come to a professional.

“So, we want to equip the Cochrane community with the skills to recognize, respond and refer, and we’ve done some training sessions on that.”

One of the keys is to involve men, she said.

“We educate. We invite them into our space to talk. There’s a number of men who are very good advocates for us,” Fisher said.

Lana Wells is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at University of Calgary. In 2010, she created Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence.

Wells is familiar with how the pandemic has affected domestic violence, and said the severity of injuries and the complexity of cases have increased since COVID-19 hit.

“With the isolation, the lockdown, and all the other world events as well, there’s just this added stress,” Wells said.

She has anecdotal information that during the pandemic, more men were committing violence and more children were being affected.

Her current areas of research include engaging men in violence prevention, and prevention policy frameworks for governments and communities.

“Where there’s a huge gap and I think it’s starting to change, is in support for men. Men who are thinking about being abusers or are committing small acts of harm, getting them access to help, there aren’t tons of services,” she said. “Predominantly in Alberta, programming is directed towards women.”

Wells was supportive of the direction Big Hill Haven is taking, of directing more support services for men.

“That’s fantastic. And that’s amazing. Many women’s shelters are doing that, but not all of them. And there’s not tons of funding for that yet,” she said.

“Working with the whole family is the key,” she added.

Fisher said she’s seen it all in her 35 years working with domestic violence, citing a case of abuse where a husband made his wife use the dog door to get in and out of the house.

But Fisher remains encouraged by the generosity and concern she sees in Cochrane, noting an 11-year-old girl organized a bake sale and made $250 for the shelter.

“That’s five gift cards for Walmart,” she said.

Big Hill Haven has a list of regular contributors, which Fisher says is key to keeping the doors open since they do not receive government funding.

“This town cares for its own,” she said. “There’s hope here – it’s not all bad.”

Anyone who feels they need help can reach Big Hill Haven by phone at 403-796-6564 or by confidential email at bighilloutreach@gmail.com.

They have a number of residential units available for victims, in undisclosed locations.

For more information or to make a donation go to www.bighillhaven.com.