Story by: Pamela Cross
The connection between COVID-19 and the safety of women living in or attempting to flee abusive relationships may not be immediately obvious, but those of us practicing family law, in particular, need to be aware of it.
Public policy decisions that close schools, community centres, libraries, arenas and swimming pools; encourage people to work remotely from home; and suspend community programming for mothers and children, while important in the attempt to control spread of the coronavirus, also put women with abusive partners at greater risk of harm.
In fact, some of them play right into the hands of many abusers. It is much easier for an abuser to socially isolate his partner when she can’t go to work because she has to take care of the children as a result of school closures and when she can’t meet up with friends or get a break from her partner’s company by taking the kids to the library or community centre because they are closed, too.
With increased social isolation, a woman is more vulnerable to her partner’s emotional and physical abuse. Forced round-the-clock contact with the abuser because both people are working from home increases opportunities for physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
As the U.S. National Domestic Abuse Hotline notes: “Abuse is about power and control. When survivors are forced to stay in the home or in close proximity to their abuser more frequently, an abuser can use any tool to exert control over their victim.”
Children will be exposed to more of the abuse to which their mothers are subjected when they are in the home all day due to school closures. That exposure can have long term and serious impacts on kids that may last into adulthood and affect the kinds of relationships they enter into.
While stress itself is not the cause of family violence, it exacerbates existing abusive relationships. There is no doubt that all of us are feeling increased stress as a result of COVID-19. For families living with abuse, this stress may tip the balance and lead to increased incidents of abuse.
The European Institute for Gender Equality warns: “In times of crisis and natural disasters, there is a documented rise in domestic abuse. As normal life shuts down, victims — who are usually women — can be exposed to abusers for long periods of time and cut off from social and institutional support.”
Shelter beds will be harder to come by for those seeking to leave, because shelters are imposing measures to slow (or prevent) the spread of the virus to their residents. For some shelters, this means no new admissions at the present time.
The suspension of all regular operations at Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice will create additional risks for women who have already left their abusive partner.
The announcement from Chief Justice Geoffrey B. Morawetz says: “Access to justice for the most urgent matters must always remain available” and includes safety of a child or parent as well as the wrongful removal or retention of a child among the matters that will be considered urgent.
However, the lack of Family Law Information Centre services and the inevitable increase in demand for duty counsel services will mean that even those dealing with urgent matters, especially if they are unrepresented, will face longer waiting times and less access to legal advice.
And because scarcity can lead to selfishness, the courts are likely to face demands from people who insist their cases are urgent even when they are not, thus slowing matters even further for those facing serious safety issues.
In other words, women in or leaving abusive relationships are especially vulnerable during this public health crisis.
Family law practitioners already increase access to justice for clients every day. This is a time for all of us to do more. We need to ask all our clients whether they are dealing with safety or other issues because of COVID-19 or the prevention measures being put in place. As always, we should be well informed about community services for abused women so that we can provide this information to clients where it is needed. Those services — in particular, shelters and transition houses and Family Court Support Workers — can do specialized safety planning with women, whether they still live with their abuser or have left.
Pro bono services are going to be needed more than ever over the upcoming weeks. Please consider reaching out to shelters and other women’s services in your community so that women who have urgent family law issues can receive good legal advice and assistance to move their issues through the court process.
Together, we can help to keep abused women and their children safer, COVID-19 notwithstanding.
Pamela Cross is a feminist lawyer who works on issues related to violence against women and the law. She is the 2019 recipient of the Law Foundation of Ontario Guthrie Award for her work increasing women’s access to justice.