UCalgary podcasts feature interviews with experts from our community on the COVID-19 situation.

Episode 19: Domestic violence

May 8, 2020

All over the world, domestic violence rates are rising during the coronavirus pandemic. Many victims are trapped at home with their abusers. We talk with Kim Ruse and Lana Wells, two leaders in domestic violence prevention, about rising rates of domestic violence, what various agencies are doing about it, and how people can still access supports and services.



Lana Wells (LW): To me, this feels so different for exactly what Kim said, we are locked in our homes and the majority of us who experience domestic violence, perpetrated on women are home. So the proximity that we're having, the sibling issues that are happening, so there's I think the layering and then addictions and mental health issues being exacerbating, anxiety and stress, the ability to manage and regulate emotions when you're in this collective trauma.


Nuvyn Peters: That was Lana Wells an associate professor in UCalgary's Faculty of Social Work. And this is UCalgary COVIDcast. I'm Nuvyn Peters. Thanks for joining us. The coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives in all kinds of ways. As a society, we could be feeling the effects for years to come, even after we go back to our new normal. One social trend we're already seeing is a rise in domestic violence. As people practise physical distancing and isolation, many victims are trapped at home with their abusers. They also have less access to their social support networks. For this episode of COVIDcast, we're talking with Kim Ruse and Lana Wells, two leaders in domestic violence prevention here in Calgary. Kim is the executive director of the Calgary Women's Emergency Shelter. She's worked in the field for more than 20 years, helping human service organizations design and deliver programs that meet real needs in the community. She earned her Master's degree in Social Work from the University of Calgary, with a clinical focus on domestic violence. Lana is an associate professor in our Faculty of Social Work. She's also the Brenda Strafford Chair in the prevention of domestic violence. Lana leads Shift, the project to end domestic violence. The purpose of Shift is to enhance the capacity of policymakers, systems leaders, clinicians, service providers, and the community at large to significantly reduce the rates of domestic violence through primary prevention. Kim and Lana join us today to talk about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting rates of domestic violence, what various agencies are doing about it, and how people can still access supports and services. So thank you so much for joining me today. I want to start by asking you both a question around how the current pandemic is changing family dynamics. What are you seeing out there, Lana? Why don't we start with you.


LW: Sure. I think across the province and nation we're seeing an increase in domestic violence reports, more crisis called, and Kim will talk about shelter intake and the complexity of clients that are coming in. And we know through research like the longer period of quarantining, the greater the risk of serious psychological consequences. So for individuals this can mean a lot more stress, a lot more frustration and anger, inability to manage emotions, severe depression, PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So really, thinking too in terms of children who are exposed as well and are at home more and not just with families but siblings and other dynamics that are happening in the home.


NP: And Kim, from your end what are you seeing as a result of this pandemic?


Kim Ruse (KR): Well, we're seeing that shelter numbers are actually down a little bit. So what we're worried is that about is that women are waiting longer before they access help. We're seeing our crisis line numbers have now doubled in the last week and we're seeing more men are reaching out for help. So about 34 per cent more requests for help or coming into our men's program. And the community program is also very, very busy. So we're seeing that while people are social distancing and self isolating at home, that those dynamics are becoming more tenuous but it's more difficult to reach out for help when you are quarantined or self isolating with someone that might be abusive as well.


NP: So, when you say that the calls into your crisis line have doubled in the last week, is that just because we've been through going through this for such a long period and things have kind of been reaching their breaking point or what are some trends that have emerged through that?


KR: Well, it's been really interesting because in the first few weeks we've been monitoring the crisis line all along, the total number of calls coming into the crisis line is down. And we used to get a lot more calls for information or, "How do I help my neighbour," "How do I help my friend?" Those calls are decreasing. But what is interesting now is that as we go further into this pandemic, that the crisis calls, they were up about 18 per cent, 20 per cent, now they this week have doubled. So that tells me that we're seven weeks into this now, stressors are high and people are finally reaching a breaking point where they need to reach out for external help.


NP: So in terms of the number of volume of calls that you're receiving, how are you able during this environment of physical and social distancing able to provide the services that you do?


KR: So we're actually still providing all of our services right now. The shelter, the numbers are down a little bit. We think people are a bit afraid to come into shelter. They might be worried about positive COVID cases. We want to ensure that people understand that the shelter is open, it's accepting clients and there are lots of safety precautions in place to make sure that it is a safe place to be. All of our services have moved digitally as well. So you can access the helpline by text and by email, counseling is still happening remotely. So everything has become more of a digital process so that people can still be safe and access those services.


NP: So from a provincial or national perspective, have trends started to emerge around domestic violence or access to emergency help or is Alberta or Calgary unique given the perhaps the economic crisis that we are also undergoing?


LW: Well I wanted to respond to what Kim and Quest has done, which is moving web based and internet and virtual support. So I want people to know that it's across the human service sector. People have moved to virtual support, virtual online counseling and people have been doing this for years for a lot of training, a lot of support is out there for people to just start to click in to ask them questions through Google and they'll be able to find not maybe local resources depending on where they live, but provincial or national resources. So it's really important that people reach out. Lots of people are moving to internet based services. So hopefully people can see that and feel it, experience it and use it. As to your question around what we're seeing is a trend across Canada and I am working on some national responses with different provinces and across Canada and you are seeing rates right across in terms of mental health issues, addiction issues, domestic violence issues, and they all are related to each other. So we want to be able to monitor and understand the patterns that are emerging so that we can better respond. So Kim and I are part of a few projects that are trying to do that. We're trying to in real time data collect daily, weekly, monthly data from a variety of organizations and groups so that we can actually understand what people are looking for, the interactions that they're using through Google analytics and other processes so that we can better support and serve people because the landscape has changed drastically. So our services were set up obviously for face-to-face interactions and now it's moving online. So how do we do those in ways that are evidence-based, evidence-informed, how do we ensure that we're following up and ensuring people get the services that they need?


NP: It seems to be a culmination of a few things that you have the global health crisis that is COVID, you have the measures being in place around working from home or isolation, you have the fact that there are no schools or childcare facilities are closed and then you have this economic crisis overwhelming everyone. How do you unpack some of the triggers might not be the right word, but maybe the stressors in people's life to provide them with the support that they need to navigate what is a what is a multitude of dynamics that are going on?


LW: For me, I think about decades of research and work to advance equity and equality in our communities. And I think about a national childcare, where we were going to have a national childcare strategy and then the Harper government came in and and stopped it. And then I think about income supports. We had tested in certain communities across Canada to get people income supports and an income, an annual income, and it showed to prove worthy. And yet again, we didn't follow up with that. So I think there's things that we know, we also know women are primarily on the front lines of this pandemic and you want them at work, we need childcare and we need good childcare. So I think there's lots of things we could be thinking about in terms of knowing what creates a healthy safety net. And I think there's been lots of strategies and ideas over the decades and I think we now have an opportunity to make a fulsome response that isn't just about the pandemic, it's about the recovery and how are we going to create a new Canada that is more responsive, more supportive. We're not marginalizing certain populations. And we're seeing that in Alberta. Where are the high cases? We're seeing it with low income workers and we're going to see them through homeless world in terms of... Because remember early on we wanted to put people in hotels and then we said, "Nope, we're going to put them in one setting." So I think what's going to show up is that we need to be a more caring society. We need to take care of the income distribution, we need to ensure women's rights and equity. And I think those are the issues that we're going to be talking about in the recovery.


KR: I think in terms of unpacking the issues, I agree fully with what Lana said about the trends and the bigger picture. And I think on an individual level, what we're seeing is people come in that they are far more overwhelmed. There's a lot more complexity that they're dealing with. We're seeing higher danger assessment scores. So a danger assessment score is a tool we use to measure lethality that women are facing in their homes. So right now those scores, they were already getting really high last year. But now with this pandemic, they're off the charts. So I think there's a new complexity that we're dealing with, that families are dealing with, that service providers are needing to navigate and be able to be fluent in lots of ways of helping people. So not just the violence piece but being able to see people as a whole person.


NP: And at this time when we are isolating from one another physically, there does seem to be this movement of care and concern and reaching out to your neighbour and just being aware of those neighbourhood connections that ought to take place. From a perspective on reaching out what would you encourage people as good neighbours, for example, to be doing to support their community during this time?


KR: Well, I think that it's really important that even though we're social distancing and we might have to isolate, that we're still finding ways to reach out. Whether it's all the digital platforms that are available, texting, phone, knocking on someone's door and standing back and having a conversation. But staying really present and connected where you can, because it is already such an isolating time. So for families that are dealing with family violence, it's even more so. It's an issue that lives in the shadows anyway. So this pandemic has given it more of a life almost. So finding ways to shine light into those corners, keeping connected to people, offering support and help where you can and just being really present for people.


NP: Yeah, and what are signs that people ought to look for out of care and concern to support their neighbourhood? What are some things that people should be aware of there?


KR: There's always the obvious ones, where you're hearing arguments in a home that might be close to yours. But then there's also more subtle ones, people are withdrawing, the people that would normally connect with you by text or email are not responsive or they're not allowed out, there's some controlling behaviours showing up. This pandemic is giving people opportunity to use this to control people's behaviours and patterns of errands and connecting. So if you're noticing that someone is disappearing, that might be a sign. Well first of all they might be ill but they also might be dealing with some kind of controlling or technology situations in their homes that are not allowing them to connect with their normal network.


LW: We know from the research prior to the pandemic about three quarters of Albertans either know somebody who's been sexually abused or experiencing domestic violence. And I think if we all think about our own networks and relationships in our families and our wider networks of friends and peers and coworkers, we know people who might be experiencing. So those are the people I think we need to be reaching out through virtual check-ins, thinking about ensuring that they know that they can reach out. And I think Kim talked about lots of different ways, writing letters, online, video chats, telephone calls, just knocking on the door, standing a few feet back, but I think really disrupting what's going on in the home can sometimes be or alleviate some stress in that family. So I think the check ins, even though we can't be so close to each other, I still think we can be doing a lot of our normal relational pieces that we have done prior to the pandemic.


NP: I'm wondering if you can comment on the impact on children. Are you seeing the women that are reaching out for support, are there other family dynamics at play or are you hearing from children directly?


KR: Well, it's been interesting, because we have a program that offers support to youth in schools all year round. And one of the main avenues to connect with children, school aged children anyway is through schools. So now that they're closed, it is really made it much more difficult for us to connect with youth and find ways to support them. We are finding that the women that are calling us for support absolutely have children attached to them, tend to be zero to six. So I'm really concerned right now about those adolescent groups where the ability to connect with them is not as strong anymore now that you've removed the school angle. So that is very challenging. And they're facing new challenges too, having to do online school, being at home and maybe home is not a safe place for them. So that's certainly on our radar is something that we're watching.


NP: From a provincial standpoint, you're both on the frontline of this and I can't help but wonder, is our government either provincially, or federally, or even municipally reaching out and asking for your feedback as we as a society prepare to emerge from this pandemic?


LW: So I would say we're reaching out to them. So we're working with several organizations and systems provincially to try to have a domestic violence and sexual violence COVID response in Alberta, where we're actually trying to collect data from multiple agencies so we can understand the daily impacts and the response is both from a policy, so we can advise government, but also from an agency perspective, so agencies can pivot and move towards delivering services that are useful in this current time. And it's forcing us to all rethink the way we've delivered services and work and how we can better respond. I wouldn't say Alberta is leading edge right now in this area, although we have a very strong civil and community society that has been working together for decades. So there's a very strong group of organizations and leaders in Alberta that are proposing different ways and different solutions here in Alberta. On the national scene we're working with Minister Monsef from WAGE and we're trying to create a support for men who perpetrate, men who think they might perpetrate and men overall who need additional resources and supports during this time. So we are creating resources and supports and we're trying to go province by province, territory by territory to ensure that there's regional and local resources available for men.


NP: Yeah. I want to follow up on that comment because we spent some of our conversation talking about the impact of COVID and this pandemic on women and supporting women through this. Let's pivot a bit and talk about men. You mentioned Kim that there is a men's program at the shelter. Are you receiving calls from men in crisis?


KR: So we're receiving calls from men who are, they may not be in crisis yet, but they're concerned that that's where things are headed. So they may have lost employment or some employment. You've got kids at home now, there's a lot of pressures and stressors that are increasing for men right now. So our program works with men who are concerned about their behaviour. They're worried that it might become abusive or it already is abusive. And our counselors work with them to make shifts and changes to create more safety in their homes.


NP: And talk to me a bit about the collaboration between both the University of Calgary and the women's shelter around supporting men and both here and then Lana, with some of your research on the provincial and national scale.


KR: So the Calgary Women's Emergency shelter has been working with men since about 1992. But for the last four years we have been very intentional in researching and talking to men and really figuring out what kinds of supports are men looking for, how do we engage them effectively and efficiently in a way that is meaningful for them and how do we craft support services that really make a difference. So we'll be launching a project this year that is creating an online presence for men that really pulls together healthy resources in one place. And of course this is great because then it ties into some of the provincial work that Lana is doing. It gives us an opportunity to provide more support beyond just Calgary. I'll turn it over to you to comment further.


LW: Sure. And this is one of our major research, my research area has been trying to engage men and boys to mobilize around advancing equality and stopping violence. So we've been doing lots of different stuff over the years, built an action plan for the government of Alberta, try to understand what programs and services are out there, trying to work with systems to better respond. And more recently partnering with Kim, the men's work that she's talking about in that digital presence, we want to be able to scale it across Alberta. So no matter where you live as a man, if you're accessing or wanting to access services that you'll be able to not only get help and from a direct clinician, but if you live, let's say up in Grand Prairie or Fort McMurray right now, if you think about the floods, there's another added additional risk factor up there that you'll be able to get the resources that are available locally as well. So we're looking at creating a crisis support referral line that has embedded connection across Alberta. And a few years ago I mapped all the services for men in Alberta, so we know who's doing what and what kind of services are available. So we're trying to bring those groups into this project so that we actually have a continuum of services for men across Alberta.


NP: And how does that compare to other resources throughout Canada? Are we on the leading edge of that?


KR: Yeah, I would definitely say we're on the leading edge. We're working with Ontario who's also trying to put some supports for men who abuse and Nova Scotia is also on the cusp of trying to create something and some other provinces are at different stages of their men's work. So early on I've been working with the government of Alberta and have worked with them to try to increase their investments into the men and boys area for about five, six years now. The government does put about three to four million into services. We're trying to increase that amount so that there's more additional services available for men.


NP: You mentioned something earlier which piqued my interest when you talked about the floods in Fort McMurry, and I can't help but reflect upon the fires in Fort McMurray, the flood here in Calgary, our community has been through a lot over the last five years. How is this crisis different in terms of what you're seeing?


KR: Well, I think for us on the front lines, the floods were different in that it disrupted families, it created movement in the province. This pandemic is actually forcing people to stay in their homes, which creates a different kind of pressure on families. And it has, I think, further isolated families from natural supports that they would normally be accessing at a time of crisis where there's a flood. So we're asking families to stay home. People are losing their jobs, children are out of school. So the help-seeking behaviour that would normally be available to the average family when they're going through something like a flood, they're no longer able to reach out the way they normally would because they're self isolating with family members that it may not be safe to make those phone calls around, for example.


LW: Mm-hmm. I think a lot don't have access because of control tactics in the home, unstable internet connections as well in rural and remote and some can't afford. So I think there's a variety of... To me this feels so different for exactly what Kim said, we are locked in our home, and the majority of us who experience domestic violence, perpetrated women are home. So the proximity that we're having, the sibling issues that are happening, so there's, I think the layering and then addictions and mental health issues being exacerbating, anxiety and stress, the ability to manage and regulate emotions when you're in this collective trauma. So I feel like it's quite different than a flood. Saying that, we know from natural disasters who loses out the most are women and children, and we also know that often when rates go up, they don't come back down. So I think we need to be thinking about, not just today, but what is our recovery efforts to create a better safety net and also to support men to stop abusing.


NP: And let's pivot to recovery for a moment and whether this will be that collective moment as a society that we reflect on our own values and who we are and what do we hold dear to us. And we've heard a lot about, will this force our society to examine work life balance and supporting each other and community mindedness. From a domestic violence perspective, how do you think we ought to emerge into a recovery mode or this new normal and I guess furthermore, will we have that collective insight to be able to do that? Or do you think we'll go back to the way it's always been.


LW: These are big questions. We humans don't learn from our history. If you think about all the civilizations that have been, we have patterns as a species and we don't learn from our mistakes, we keep making the same ones over and over and the pull of capitalism and neoliberal politics, it's a tough ... will we go back to wanting what we had or will it change us in profound ways to expect to restructure and who's going to... For me one of the questions is, who's going to lead out of here with great leadership and I'm not necessarily seeing it at all levels or orders of government. I'm seeing mostly coming out of communities. I don't know if you'd agree.


KR: I would fully agree, yeah. I think that we've seen certainly the government's been very responsive around COVID planning and making sure that right now is that we're keeping people safe. But in terms of how do we move forward, how do we move through this well and come out the other side different and changed in a meaningful, improved way, I'm seeing that coming more from community leadership for sure.


NP: And I think if anything it's forced people to have a different awareness of their surroundings. When you're forced to confine to your home for so long, I've noticed, my relationships with my children, or my spouse or my neighbours have changed fundamentally as a result of this.


LW: I was just on the phone with a friend this morning who has a child on the spectrum and he's now made the decision to homeschool him because his son's doing quite well, better than when he was in the school system. So I think there's going to be really interesting ways that we're going to come out of this, that I think is going to redesign our structures and systems. And I think because it's going to take a while for a vaccine and this complexity for years to come where versus a flood, right and natural disaster happens, you do clean up, reactionary, you recreate the surface, this is going to be different. We're going to have to keep... Every day we're learning and trying to better respond both in our families and our communities and in the sector that Kim and I work in and we're learning every day. And one of the great things is we've partnered with a group called HelpSeeker, which really is an organization, well it's out of Calgary, but they really collect data and do analytics of what's happening day to day with people who are accessing services through their internet and through computer and we're actually able to really ...early on in the pandemic, people were looking and researching for food and shelter and now it's moved into mental health addictions and domestic violence. So I think if we can keep monitoring to understand, we can keep better responding. What we do need I think is better political leadership. We need better political leadership and that means thinking about the recovery and longer term as well.


NP: So as we start to navigate our way through what will be our new normal, what do you want people that are listening to know about domestic violence, whether it's signs to look for in your neighbours or colleagues or friends or ways that you can support each other or ways that you can help support the future creation of a more caring, collective society, moving forward.


KR: Yeah, I think I'm hoping that what we come through this with is an understanding that family violence is not about women and children only. It really is about communities. It's about whole families. It includes men. It really is all of us. We all have a stake in this issue. It's such a private issue that gets shrouded in mystery and stigma. But hopefully as we come through this, people start to realize that it actually is a community issue and the only way that we're really going to make some big strides in it is if we all take ownership of it and are working towards supporting each other in a way that isn't shaming, that is really respecting all the people connected, so that anyone involved with family violence feel supported and respected when they reach out for help.


LW: And I agree, we've kept it as a private issue for so long and it really is a public health issue. And I think people, while we've been advocating for decades around the cause of violence, pervasiveness of violence, I think now people are really starting to understand the impact of domestic violence, not just on the individuals but on the community as a whole, as Kim said. I'd also say if people have resources donating right now to places like the Calgary Women's Emergency Shelter is critical. It's critical right now. So prior to the pandemic, our government in Alberta severely cut the sector. So it cut a lot of the health and support services that were needed. So I think it's important that as a civil society, if you can give, you can give and then I also think about leadership locally, like people on the ground and me and myself in my own community, what are ways that we can support and help our neighbours and doing that locality piece, that local movement, how do we check in on neighbours or families and friends, how are we connecting to our own towns and municipalities, to figure out how we can better support getting educated on the issue, learning how to step in and healthy ways we call it bystander or upstander, learning how to intervene in ways that keeps you safe but also disrupts the violence. I think individuals need to take more responsibility around their role and I think to Kim's point, because it was seen or perceived as a private issue, people didn't want to intervene or step in, "That's not my problem. That's over there." Now it's all of our problems. And I would also say, I'm hoping that what comes out of this is better resources and supports for men. If you look at the sector, the majority of the funding goes into the crisis response, not prevention. So what I've been working on for the last decade at the University of Calgary is that focus places we know there's evidence-based places to focus in policy and interventions and programming, we're not doing enough of that. And I hope that that governments heed the call to prevention because I think it's critical and in order to stop the violence before it starts.


NP: Well, on that note, I want to thank you both for joining me today, which has been a very fascinating, interesting conversation. And it would also be interesting perhaps a month or six weeks from now for us to reconnect, to see what's different from the last time we spoke or how has society changed and it's be interesting a year from now to also perhaps listen to this podcast again and say what is different about our assumptions or about what we're seeing in society now. So thank you for both your leadership on the frontline and through the work that you're doing and for joining me here today.


LW: Thank you so much for hosting us today.


KR: Thank you.


NP: The city of Calgary offers resources to help cope with the pandemic, including a 211 number you can call, text, or chat if you or someone you know needs support. There's also a 24 hour family violence hotline available. Visit to find out more. This has been UCalgary COVIDcast. To subscribe or listen to past episodes or to get more online resources for coping with the coronavirus pandemic, please visit Thanks to Kim Ruse and Lana Wells for taking the time to speak with us today, and thanks to all of you for listening. I'm Nuvyn Peters. See you next time.


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