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Crisis sparks increase in family violence

  • April 8, 2020

There’s a global public health risk that could tear families apart and harm women and children — not COVID-19 itself, but a related fallout from shutting families indoors and depriving them of jobs and school.

Increases in family violence in Canada have already begun, and Catholic agencies that serve families are bracing for impact.

“We have experienced a spike,” Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto executive director Mark Kartusch told The Catholic Register.

“Yeah, there is an increase,” said Shereen McFarlane, violence against women program manager at Catholic Family Services of Toronto.

“We’re concerned about the increased risk of child abuse and neglect because of the pandemic,” said Rocco Gizzarelli, executive director at Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton. “Our message is that we want families to know we’re here to help them and support them.”

On April 5, the United Nations called for urgent action. “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic,” UN Secretary General António Guterres wrote on Twitter.

Canadians are not exempt, said Kartusch.

“It’s happened everywhere else, so why wouldn’t we expect it to happen here,” he said.

Gizzarelli worries about phone calls his agency isn’t getting. With kids not attending schools and daycares, the number one source of referrals to Children’s Aid has been shut down.

“Not only are there fewer watchful eyes, but the stress of isolation, including the financial strain heightens problems for families who are struggling,” Gizzarelli said. “We’re anticipating that as this goes on we’re getting warnings of increased risk of violence as families are stuck together.”

While the overall volume of calls into Hamilton’s Catholic Children’s Aid is down, there’s increased demand for interventions with families who are already clients of the agency.

“We’re focused on the high-risk families. So those new situations that come in where a child is at imminent risk, those are done face-to-face,” Gizzarelli said. “Other situations, we are working remotely with families.”

Serving women at risk is harder for many reasons, according to McFarlane of Catholic Family Services. Social work counsellors need face-to-face conversations to establish trust and to notice subtle cues that could indicate trauma or threats a woman may be facing.

“It’s an adjustment,” she said. “There are cues, behavioural cues. Being able to connect through a medium — all those pieces are just definitely a difficulty.”

McFarlane expects to be dealing with the fallout of COVID-19 situations long after the social distancing lockdown ends. But she retains hope.

“There is hope in being able to hold the boat as steady as possible so that people can come out on the other side,” she said. 

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