Manitoulin Family Resources adapts to pandemic

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Part III of a series

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Manitoulin Expositor has learned of an increase in violent crimes in 2020. Over the course of this series, this newspaper will speak with area law enforcement officials to learn about what has been happening in Island communities, as well as with agencies that provide support to victims and their families to learn about what may be driving some of the trends.

MANITOULIN—According to the executive director of Manitoulin Family Resources (MFR), an Island agency that provides services for several vulnerable sectors, provincial lockdown orders have impacted the rate of people accessing services through her organization, but the patterns from last year have left her with a long list of unanswered questions.

“We’ve tried our best to stay on top of the demand,” said Marnie Hall. “But it is very difficult to know if we are meeting that need. I say that because it’s difficult to know how to reach women and children at risk who don’t have a way to reach out.”

MFR runs a violence against women (VAW) program including a crisis phone line and outreach counselling, it runs Haven House Shelter for women and children in need of a safe place to stay, transitional housing and housing support. Its children’s services program includes EarlyON child and family centres, child care and parenting support. Finally, it runs both a thrift shop and a food bank.

Citing a recent report from Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, Ms. Hall said there were fewer femicides near the start of lockdowns in March 2020 when compared to the year before. However, when lockdown measures relaxed, that association found an increase in femicides. It defines such crimes as “the intentional murder of women because they are women.”

Between November 2019 and 2020, 75.7 percent of reported femicides occurred inside or outside a residence. The total number of femicides was 37 across the province.

The majority, or 40.5 percent of offenders, were intimate partners of the victim. Just under 20 percent of offenders were family members and about 13.5 percent knew the victim. Circumstances when the relationship between the offender and victim are not known accounted for 27 percent of the incidences.

“What is clear from the femicide list, is that home is simply not a safe place for those experiencing violence. This demonstrates a need to further study the implications of not only the pandemic but the health measures that have been put in place for women experiencing gender-based violence,” the report stated.

As noted in last week’s check-in with Manitoulin-Northshore Victim Services, both in-person outreach for its domestic violence services and referrals from concerned friends and family have dropped off as people spend much more time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re constantly trying to be creative and see what other opportunities we may have for people to reach out, but if they’re in lockdown and at home, and have children at home and the relationship is violent with everyone in the home, where can they go?” she said.

The pandemic has interrupted many parts of normal lives that create opportunities to reach out to others for help, such as taking children to school, out on playdates, going grocery shopping or running other errands in the community. If a victim is stuck close to their abuser, it may not be safe or possible to call for help.

The pandemic has cut MFR’s ability to have its staff visit vulnerable people but it continues to offer virtual services, such as its 24-hour crisis phone and text lines and virtual counselling sessions.

However, the virtual services have not been as popular on Manitoulin as they have been in other regions. Ms. Hall speculated this may be related to poorer internet access, lacking safe spaces to communicate and the lack of an in-person connection.

Because of this slower uptake, Ms. Hall said her agency strives to adapt to each situation’s individual needs.

“Historically, in terms of VAW, we know the woman is the best expert of how they’re going to be able to access the services, what will be safe for her, and we try to follow her lead. Hopefully in the next few months we can come up with more creative ways,” she said.

During the lockdown, while overall volumes dropped off, those coming forward had the most severe cases, said Ms. Hall. There has also been an uptick in mental health crises, especially during the pandemic, as many reports have shown.

“We know people are struggling to go through this period and the changes. Even people with good networks and strong support systems have had challenges over the pandemic,” Ms. Hall said.

MFR’s shelter has also faced cuts to its capacity, operating at a maximum of 50 percent occupancy with surges and quieter periods of demand. When the beds are full, the organization works with community partners to refer clients to other services that can offer a safe alternative off-site.

Deciding whether to enter a shelter or stay in a dangerous home environment is a challenging question at the best of time, but during a pandemic when congregate living settings have seen the biggest risks, this decision becomes even more fraught.

“I absolutely have to give credit to the VAW staff because this has been a long year; there hasn’t been a time that anything has been quiet. We run a 24/7 operation and feel like our hands are tied at times in terms of what we can offer. Our staff have been amazing.”

MFR has increased cleaning and disinfection practices and has worked with public health to develop strategies to ensure safety.

The VAW prevention programs and food bank remain in operation at MFR during the pandemic. People can refer themselves to the food bank by calling 705-368-3400 x242.

Those seeking VAW support can access the crisis line, shelter and counselling services by calling 705-377-5160 or 1-800-465-6788. A new VAW services text line is also available at 705-968-0499. For further details on MFR’s offerings, consult MFResources.net. If there is immediate danger, call 911.