Townships Using 20% Of Domestic Violence Shelter Spaces

Providing assistance in rural communities presents different challenges to the cities, explained Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region’s CEO Jen Hutton. (Photo supplied)

Providing assistance in rural communities presents different challenges to the cities, explained Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region’s CEO Jen Hutton. (Photo supplied)

During COVID's first wave, the number of domestic abuse victims who were seeking refuge in Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region (WCSWR) shelters plummeted. And that was bad news.

CEO Jennifer Hutton has led WCSWR since 2018. She said that when the pandemic began in March 2020, the agency saw its shelter occupancy drop to 40 per cent of capacity. Hutton was worried that abused women were stuck at home with their abusers.

“I predict we’re going to see a big surge when things open up,” she said.

WCSWR supports women and children who are experiencing domestic violence. The agency operates two emergency shelters – Anselma House in Kitchener and Haven House in Cambridge – with a combined total of 90 beds.

It’s the only organization in the Region that provides shelter services to victims of domestic violence in Wilmot and Wellesley, and it also runs a free, confidential, outreach program that is available to women in the Region’s cities and townships.

“One thing I was looking at was how many rural women use our shelter services. It’s about 20 per cent. I was actually kind of surprised about that,” said Hutton, after reviewing her agency’s data.

She pointed out that providing assistance in rural communities presents different challenges to the cities.

“When you’re looking at domestic violence and rural women, there’s always some additional safety planning measures that need to be put in place. I’m making some generalizations, but there might be an increased likelihood of weapons, so that’s something to consider.”

COVID has meant an increased sense of isolation for most people, and that’s even more pronounced in rural communities that are spread out.

“Again, another layer that needs to be considered around safety planning is just that increased physical isolation, and sometimes social isolation.”

Oftentimes, an emotional connection to animals, such as pets, can be a deterrent for women who are considering leaving an abusive partner. That reluctance increases when farm animals are factored in.

“Women who have animals tend to stay in domestic violence relationships two to three years longer, because they don’t want to leave those animals, or they’re worried about the safety of those animals if they were to leave,” Hutton said.

WCSWR works in partnership with Wilmot Family Resource Centre and Woolwich Counselling Centre, which have close connections to their respective communities. Women sometimes feel more comfortable reaching out to community resources that have a better understanding of their daily lives.

However, living in a small, tight-knit community might actually prevent women from seeking help close to home. A lack of confidentiality can be an issue when everyone knows everyone else, and personal news can spread quickly.

Hutton said, “I think there can be those women that are more afraid if they were to go to one of those organizations that they might be more likely to see a friend, or family, or community members, so then they may actually want to come in to the city for services. What we’ve done is have one of our outreach workers as a point person to the rural agencies.”

A woman in crisis can then get to know and trust that worker, she added.

“Oftentimes, we’ve had people do joint sessions that way, so they’re meeting with their counsellor, but then they’re also having somebody come in that has that specific domestic violence expertise, and helps with safety planning.”

WCSWR has a 24-hour support line that women can call. But at a time when a woman might be isolated with an abusive partner, picking up the phone could set off alarm bells, putting her at additional risk. To help counter this, the agency added a chat feature to its website.

“Women, whether they’re on their laptop or their cell phone, can just go to our website and start chatting online with a worker,” said Hutton.

When an abuse victim contacts WCSWR, they’re connected with a trained member of staff, most of whom are social workers. The staff member gathers information in order to assess the situation, including the risk level.

Sometimes the woman might want to talk with an agency worker about their situation, such as the potential impact on a child, or they might need help with safety planning. WCSWR staff allows the client to guide them.

Hutton said, “They would come from the perspective of, it’s a woman’s journey, what does she want? What does she need?”