Kirsten Mehle answers crisis calls at the Central Alberta Women’s Emergency Shelter in Red Deer. The shelter’s outreach workers are assisting a growing number of abused women who are continuing to live in the community during this pandemic. (Contributed photo).

Kirsten Mehle answers crisis calls at the Central Alberta Women’s Emergency Shelter in Red Deer. The shelter’s outreach workers are assisting a growing number of abused women who are continuing to live in the community during this pandemic. (Contributed photo).

A stressful year for victims of domestic violence in central Alberta

Outreach workers are helping more abuse victims who are remaining in their homes

This pandemic-plagued year has been “tremendously challenging” and stressful for the Central Alberta Women’s Emergency Shelter and its clients.

While the number of abused women and children who have stayed at the shelter declined in 2020, staff are helping more abused moms and kids who are continuing to live at home — usually with the perpetrators of domestic violence.

The shelter’s outreach workers assisted 190 people who are staying in the community so far this year. This is up from 110 people in 2019.

The centre’s executive-director, Rayann Toner, believes this confirms that many women are feeling stuck in bad situations.

“The isolation of the pandemic provides ever more power and control for the abuser,” said Toner, who noted many of these abusive partners are either working from home or have lost their jobs in the pandemic downsizing, so can keep a closer eye on their victims.

“Domestic violence feeds on silence,” she explained, so women with fewer social connections or opportunities to leave the house are at greater risk.

Given this troubling situation, the shelter’s outreach workers have been seeking different ways to connect with their clients. “We still have phone calls, texts, messages” and other ways to get through, said Toner.

“This year has been tremendously challenging and stressful,” Toner admitted, “but it has also provided us with opportunities to do business differently.”


Women are fleeing from more dangerous violence

Alberta has one of highest domestic violence rates in the country

Online therapy sessions for domestic violence victims who are staying in the community are now being provided. Toner said this program was successfully piloted last year and has been expanded.

As well, some Zoom, online sessions between clients and shelter outreach workers are among the new ways of connecting with people in need.

Besides fewer opportunities to flee domestic abuse, many women are also fearful of getting into collective living situations while COVID-19 is spreading in the community, said Toner.

This is reflected in statistics that show admissions into the emergency shelter dropped to 373 women and children from Jan. 1 to 21 in 2020, from 558 in 2019.

Crisis calls about domestic violence are also down to 2,524 from 2,914 in last year.

Shelter staff have consulted with Alberta Health Services to create a safe environment during this pandemic. Toner said this has meant shutting some bedrooms and common areas to allow for enough social distancing — having 20 beds available instead of 40.

Staff and clients are required to sanitize, wear masks, shields and/or goggles.

“I am really proud of our staff,” said Toner, who feels they are working harder and more creatively to meet clients’ needs in a new coronavirus world.

While admissions to the shelter are down over the holidays, she is preparing for a surge in demand as people come out of isolation in 2021.

Meanwhile, Toner urges central Albertans to check in with friends and connect with their neighbours. “It’s imperative that we step up and show some caring and kindness and that we look out for each other now.”

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