Calls for help from people facing abuse in their St. Albert homes have increased significantly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Stop Abuse in Families (SAIF) Society, they have noticed double the calls in March compared to in January, as public health orders force people to stay indoors with their abusers.
Executive director Areni Kelleppan said while it is tricky to do an apples-to-apples comparison, in the first three months of 2019 SAIF received about 12 to 15 unique calls per month.
After doing extensive awareness campaigns, Kelleppan said she was not surprised to see 24 calls from new clients this past January. But then the numbers grew to 36 in February, to 47 calls from new individuals last month.
“The fact that it went up so dramatically in February and March is a little scary,” she said.
The society provides support and education for people who have experienced or witnessed family violence, with in-house psychologists and social workers who can provide referrals. They also proactively aim to support development of healthy relationships through education campaigns in schools.
This year SAIF began tracking its statistics differently, which Kelleppan said makes comparisons tricky. However, typical call volumes trend to remain slow and level in the first quarter of the year, with a spike in May as people return from work camps.
It is significant for the number of calls from people at risk to double, and Kelleppan said anecdotally people are feeling insecure living at home and feeling “alienated or isolated with their abuser.”
“Usually there's a chance, you know, to go work out or to go hang out with your friends or whatever, get away from your abuser,” she said. “That combined with alcohol deliveries in the home, are not helping the situation.”
She added the society expects to see the numbers of people accessing their services to increase again in April. Those statistics will not be available until the beginning of May.
St. Albert RCMP reported 12 instances of domestic violence assaults in March, and 58 per cent of them were cleared by charge. Last year in March, there were 10 reports of domestic violence and 80 per cent were cleared by charge.
According to SAIF board chair Cheryl Pollard, RCMP statistics do not “tell the whole story.”
“When people come in and access our services, many of them haven't been to the police,” she said. “The police data is just one set of a whole range of data that demonstrates that the community is in pain and there's concerns that are needing attention.”
Kelleppan said while a lot of the people who call SAIF feel a sense of “fear and panic,” they do not feel it is enough to fall under the definition of being in immediate danger required for calling 911.
“We could have clients who call us and say, ‘He tried to strangle me, but he stopped, and I think he's okay and he was just, he was drinking, so I'm not in immediate danger,’” she said. “It is an assessment by the person on the other end of the line, who has a lot of other things to consider.”
There are also “grave risks” to reporting an abuser to police, unless the complainant is certain they are in immediate danger. Kelleppan said should the RCMP show up at someone’s home and deem there is no immediate threat, that person is then stuck in the same house with the person they just reported.
“There are grave risks to calling in the police, unless you're fairly certain,” she said, adding it is not a reflection on the police themselves.
As a result, oftentimes people at risk will not call the police but will instead call SAIF. Protocol asks callers to use a safe word, and the society can talk them through how to de-escalate the situation and to create a safety plan.
“If they can get out into the backyard for 10 minutes of a call, that can be incredibly important, because right now in this social isolation they're not able to get away,” Kelleppan said.
SAIF can be reached at (780) 460-2195, and they have a list of resrouces on their website.
If you are in immediate danger, call 911. Those not in immediate danger are encouraged to call the RCMP general information line at 780-458-4300.