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'It did get taken out on me': Domestic abuse climbs during economic downturn, pandemic

·15 min read

Angela Palmer found herself in a cycle of domestic abuse with her former partner, which drove her into a deep depression and suicide attempt in 2015.

Palmer, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, had been with her partner for over 10 years and they had several children together, but the abuse led her to eventually leave her partner and take her children with her.

“About five years ago I found myself in a recurring cycle. My partner would use drugs, and every time it would come up, I end up leaving and going and staying at a family member's house,” Palmer said.

“It was always the lash-outs. I was always the problem."

During that relationship, Palmer spent time in safe houses and kept a bug-out bag in her vehicle in case she had to leave and didn’t have time to pack her things.

“It's been a rocky road,” she said.

Palmer’s former partner has a brain injury and struggled with substance abuse. All along, she said it felt like she was dating two different people.

“There was this good guy and then there was the bad guy."

When Palmer’s former partner would use drugs, his personality would change, and she could immediately tell he was going to start becoming abusive.

During the cycle, Palmer would suffer from verbal, emotional, financial and some physical abuse.

“Sometimes I did fear for my life. And I knew that I couldn't be there.”

Palmer's former partner worked in the oil and gas industry on the rigs while she was the stay-at-home parent. He struggled when the industry slowed down and his work and income dried up.

Around four years ago, he went into heavy duty equipment operation – but that came with its own struggles. The work was seasonal, and rainy or wet conditions could shut him down.

“That does put a toll on somebody when they're trying to support a family and pay for stuff,” Palmer said – and he directed his stress toward her.

“I think it did get taken out on me."

In 2015, as oil prices plunged and a recession swept into Alberta, Palmer attempted to take her own life.

“There were a couple times where I felt like taking my own life. Five years ago, I did attempt it once and failed, thankfully,” Palmer said.

The 2015 spike in abuse Palmer experienced was not rare for people suffering from abuse across the province.

In Calgary, a correlation was found between dropping oil prices and a rise in calls for support for domestic violence, with every $10 U.S. fall in the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) resulting in an extra call for help every two days.

Lana Wells, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and the Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence at the Faculty of Social Work, said economic conditions are one of the many factors that may impact domestic violence.

“That added stress – it's not an excuse, but it’s a contributing factor,” Wells said.

Studies exploring domestic violence during the recession that hit in 2008 showed the domestic violence rate for couples feeling high financial strain was 9.5 per cent, compared to 2.7 per cent of for couples who reported feeling a low level of financial strain. While many studies indicate there is a connection between economic stress and domestic violence, the relationship is reciprocal: economic stress may increase the risk of domestic violence, but the abuse may also cause financial problems for survivors and trap them in poverty and an abusive relationship.

Jan Reimer, executive director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, said the downturn in the economy has brought a lot of stress on the shoulders of families.

Even when times are good, intimate partner violence will also spike – people have money to spend on drugs and alcohol, for instance, and there is a lot of workers going in and out of camps from around the country, which can lead them to rely more on substances to cope with the camp lifestyle. Reimer said when the economy is really good in Alberta, domestic violence calls for support increase.

Due to this, Alberta tends to rate in the top three highest numbers of domestic violence across the country, Reimer said.

Right now with COVID-19 adding even more pressure along with the recession, the picture is not good for domestic violence rates. Reimer said calls for support are high across the world, and the United Nations is calling the violence against women a "shadow pandemic".

“We are really concerned about what's happening in homes,” Reimer said.

“It's really underreported as well. So we know that there are a lot of families that are going through difficult times right now.”

In Alberta, between mid-March and mid-September, RCMP recorded a 12-per-cent rise in calls involving domestic violence compared to the previous year.

Reimer said the amount and severity of domestic violence incidents have been high since the pandemic arrived.

“Police are saying that when they are responding to calls, it is a much higher level severity than they have seen previously,” Reimer said.

She added regarding stay-at-home orders, for many families, home isn’t a safe place to be.

The executive director said before the pandemic hit, shelters were turning away women. Now, with reduced capacity because of COVID-19, there is not enough support available for women.

In St. Albert, calls about domestic abuse have more than tripled since the start of the pandemic.

Stop Abuse In Families (SAIF) Society is reporting its numbers have spiked since the pandemic began in March, and the society continues to handle more than three times its usual amount of clients as the months go on.

Areni Kelleppan, executive director of SAIF, said the calls are “unprecedented” but the society's staff are working hard to serve all those coming to them in need.

“It's been pretty significant,” Kelleppan said.

“A lot of people are in abusive relationships who never seek help, so they'll never go to a shelter, they won't seek help, they'll just cope ... they just learned to live with this. And with COVID, it just exacerbated things.”

Typically, SAIF has an average of 25 to 30 calls per month. This March, they had 59 calls, six of which were reported as COVID-19 related. In April, they received 100 calls, with 29 reported as COVID-19 related. In May, they received 76 calls with 10 being reported as COVID-19 related. In June, they received 101 calls, with 28 reported as COVID-19 related.

In the St. Albert RCMP’s latest quarterly report, police said they received 30 calls about domestic assaults in the first three months of 2020, compared to 27 calls in the last quarter of 2019.

Kelleppan said many of the calls to SAIF are from people asking questions about abuse and staff helping them understand what abuse is. People could also be sitting at home alone during COVID-19 processing old trauma, or people who would typically access other services, like sexual assault supports, are coming to SAIF instead.

Kelleppan said due to cuts in funding and an increase in calls for service, the SAFFRON Sexual Assault Centre as well as the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE) have been overwhelmed with calls and wait times have gone up, driving people who need support to SAIF as well.

“We've become one of the only games in town, for lack of a better word.”

The executive director said there is no one reason why domestic abuse calls are on the rise, and the issue is a complex one, but factors that can exacerbate an already abusive situation include hits to the economy, working from home, job losses and money problems, spending a lot of time together, alcohol consumption and isolation from friends and family.

“It’s not just one thing, and I think it would be remiss of me to say (it’s one thing). It's a complex set of factors. And people cope differently – and without any of their coping mechanisms, crap hits the fan,” Kelleppan said.

And with a need for services increasing, rural communities may face unique barriers to getting them.

One of the biggest challenges for smaller rural communities is transportation to safe spaces to stay.

“Generally, transportation has been a huge barrier for women accessing shelter ... And in rural Alberta, you might be a long way away from a shelter. How are you going to get there?”

In Hanna, Alta., for example, the closest women’s shelter is in Brooks, 134 km away.

And for women with kids and jobs, it’s nearly impossible to uproot their lives and go stay in a shelter outside of their communities, Reimer said.

Becky Viste, community learning co-ordinator at the Hanna Learning Centre, said their biggest struggle is getting people to shelters.

“In rural Alberta, whether you're trying to get to a women's shelter or trying to get to a COVID-19 test, we have no taxi, no bus. And we do have some for-profit businesses that will take our residents to medical appointments in the city. But the cost of that is over and above, around $400 for a trip to Calgary or Red Deer,” Viste said.

The community has relied on finding volunteers, but that can be a big safety issue.

“Because now not only are you trying to get the victim of domestic violence away from the community, but you're now also having somebody volunteer to possibly be confronted. We try to do it in the most confidential manner we can, however, we also need to inform our driver that this person is fleeing (a) domestic situation,” Viste said.

On top of that, it’s very difficult to get shelters to hold beds while they secure transportation, Viste said.

Wells said there are multiple root causes for why people use violence in their relationships. Men with hostile attitudes toward women tend to act more on those attitudes; men who are around violence or who witnessed violence as children are also more likely to act in an abusive manner.

“Men who hang out in peer groups or networks that are violent are often more violent,” Wells said.

One in six men who have been exposed to domestic violence as children go on to be perpetrators of abuse.

Wells said intimate partner violence is a learned behaviour and therefore can be prevented. Research shows teens who are in violent relationships are more likely to be in violent relationships when they are older.

Overall, Wells said society and social conditions can reinforce violence, including football events like when the Calgary Stampeders play the Edmonton Eskimos, and the arrival of the Calgary Stampede.

According to a study, domestic violence calls on the seventh, ninth and tenth day of the ten-day Calgary Stampede event go up 15 per cent compared to an average day. During weekends and summer months domestic violence rates in Calgary.

The Alberta rivalry football games were also associated with a 15-per-cent increase in domestic violence reports, and when Calgary played in the Grey Cup there was a 40-per-cent increase in domestic violence reports.

Wells research showed Calgary Flames games seemed to have no relationship to domestic violence calls, even against the Edmonton Oilers. Overall, research shows that the degree to which violence is part of the game itself has shown to have a positive correlation with domestic violence incidents.

Holidays like New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter, Canada Day, Labour Day, Valentine’s Day and Halloween all showed a spike in domestic violence calls in Calgary, although research showed the impact of holidays was geographically dependant and there would be different outcomes for rates of domestic violence depending on where the research was conducted in the world.

During the 2013 floods in Calgary, there was an increase of 6.6 reported incidents of domestic violence per day, representing a 14-per-cent increase from the average.

While these incidents of intimate partner violence may be influenced by holidays and economic conditions, domestic violence also has an overall impact on the economy.

According to a June 2012 report, there had been $600 million spent in the previous five years on supporting those suffering from domestic violence, with $521 million coming out of the pockets of Albertans through their tax dollars.

“Taxpayers pay a lot through health care systems, through justice, through women’s shelters, through loss of time at work. It impacts everybody,” Wells said.

Wells said while the problem is often framed as an individual struggle, all Albertans are impacted by it financially.

But investment in quality prevention and intervention can be cost-effective, returning as much as $20 for every dollar invested. Estimates show the implementation of preventative programs could cost $9.6 million while generating net cost benefits of more than $54 million.

To help begin to solve the complex problem of intimate partner violence, Wells said there needs to be more support for men.

Domestic and sexual abuse can be done by either men or women. However, Wells said overall intimate partner violence comes from men 83 per cent of the time, while 90 per cent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by men.

“It is a gender issue,” Wells said. “How are we socializing our boys and men and how can we disrupt that socialization?”

Wells said there is no silver bullet to stop the violence, but there are multiple factors that can be addressed to make changes.

Cultures of manhood and how men are socialized from birth can lead to men being less comfortable being vulnerable, Wells said.

“All the way from when they are born and told not to cry as a boy, all the way to 'suck it up', and then to be a protector and provider. I think those messages reinforce not being vulnerable,” Wells said.

Wells said we need to unpack the socialization and expectations on how men are supposed to behave.

“I think men have an amazing role to play with stopping violence, within themselves, within their peer groups and within society,” Wells said.

The expert said right now in Alberta, there is a gap in services for men who have been victimized, who are perpetrators or men who want to be allies and help with the prevention work.

“We don't have enough support and program services going to them. So I think there's a huge gap.”

Wells said society also needs to support men who are in the oil and gas industry or other trades.

“One of the biggest crises is going to be all these men who are out of work – not just with violence overall, but for mental health and wellbeing,” Wells said, adding men are socialized to not seek help when they are struggling.

Wells and her team are trying to work with leaders and influencers within communities so they can start to create a new cultural normal.

On a policy level, Wells said public health needs to be supporting new fathers and giving them paternity leave because that is a “transformative time in men’s (lives)” – it's a hard time for men, and it's a time when they could be seeking support.

Wells said intervention in schools would be valuable, and infusing equality and healthy relationship education through the curriculum – overall, the provincial government needs to create a comprehensive strategy that guides investment in this area. The work would also include the partnerships of male-dominated industries and sports organization to be leaders in the field.

Palmer is now out of her abusive relationship and living with her children in a home on her own.

"My current situation isn't a danger," Palmer said.

"I am happy to have my own place and it feels good. I feel strong. I'm not gonna lie – there are times where I feel like I could break down, but for the most part the kids and I are happy in our new place."

Palmer still coparents with her former partner and the family took a trip to B.C. together over the summer, where Palmer helped him out with the kids.

"He still is supportive of them," Palmer said.

The mom still holds out hope that one day, he will get better and seek treatment for his substance abuse.

"I'm just trying to figure out where I'm going. When somebody has a drug problem and you want them to get help, but they can't, nobody else can do it but themselves. I just have hope that one day he will, but it's just been so long that I just feel like he won't."

Through it all, Palmer has had a good support system, which has brought her through the darkest days.

"I've had a good support system and it's because of the support that I have, that they think I was able to get to where I am today, including professional supports," Palmer said.

"It feels safe."

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Great West Newspapers, covering rural Alberta issues.

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette