As we consider the ways in which COVID- 19 is affecting our lives, it is easy to miss its unique impacts on vulnerable populations, including women living in abusive relationships. Consider this scenario:
A woman is living with her abusive partner. She has an exit plan in place. She has managed to put a bit of money aside. She has hired a family law lawyer who will start legal proceedings as soon as she and her kids are in a safe place. She has connected with the women’s shelter in her community and will be moving there next week. She is waiting until her abuser is out of town for a few days, because that will make it easier and safer to gather up what she needs as well as to explain what is going on to her children. She has a part-time job that she loves, because it lets her be independent and feel good about herself. Her boss is aware of her situation and is very supportive.
Now, though, it seems that her plans to leave and deal with her family law issues may not come to fruition. She is at home all day with her kids, because the schools have been closed. She can’t get out of the house with them to get away from her partner — whose workplace has closed, so he is working from home — for even a few hours because the library, rec centre and movie theatre are all closed. She is removed from the support of her boss and colleagues and the stimulation of her work.
Her abuser now has access to her in the privacy of their home around the clock. This, combined with the added stress of the health crisis, leads to an increase in his abuse. The children are exposed to this and are becoming anxious and upset. Her boss can only pay her for a few more days if she is not able to return to work, so she cannot stockpile any more money to help get away. She may not be able to go to the shelter after all, because it is limiting new admissions due to staffing shortages caused by the virus.
Public good vs individual impact
The impact of COVID-19 on women living in or attempting to flee abusive relationships may not be immediately obvious to many, but we must make the connection if they and their children are to stay safe.
Public policy decisions that close schools and day cares, community centres, libraries, arenas, swimming pools and movie theatres; 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 isolate women with abusive partners, thus putting them at greater risk of harm.
We know from the reports of domestic homicide committees across the country that the greatest risk of homicide begins as soon as the abuser suspects his partner is planning to leave and continues in the weeks and months following separation. This is just when survivors need access to family court the most.
And yet, courts across the country are closing and restricting services. In Ontario, the suspension of all regular operations at the Superior Court of Justice may help slow the spread of the virus, but it also creates additional risks for women with an abusive partner.
Family Law Information Centres and duty counsel services are only available virtually in most communities, which makes confidentiality (and safety) a serious concern for a woman who cannot get away from her partner for her phone call with a lawyer or whose partner can access information she has stored on her cell phone or computer. Filing counters are slowly but steadily closing, meaning people will only be able to file court documents electronically; something that is not an option for everyone needing to bring a matter before the court.
While courts in Ontario continue to hear urgent matters, women may not have access to the immediate legal assistance they require: when a woman’s abusive ex takes the kids and won’t return them, she needs that support right away.
Keeping women and kids safe
The current public health crisis is a gift to abusers, many of whom are masters at manipulating any situation to their advantage. As they do so – whether that is refusing to return kids from a regular access visit, changing the terms of the exchanges so they are not safe for women, communicating outside the terms set out in the court order or something else – women may be forced to place themselves at risk to protect their children. Some women may even return to the abuser, if that is the only way they can be with their kids.
Governments have, rightly, provided special funding to shelters to assist them in keeping women and their children physically safe. In Ontario, the Chief Justice of the Superior Court, family court judges and lawyers are all stepping up to the plate to do as much as possible to ensure that women dealing with abusive partners have access to the legal remedies they need.
Despite these measures, women remain at risk.
Women fleeing abuse need the physical safety offered by shelters, but they and their children also need legal safety, which includes a fully functioning family court system and support services such as the Family Court Support Worker program.
As governments make public policy and financial aid decisions related to COVID-19, it is imperative that these needs not be ignored. If they are, women and children will pay the price; possibly with their lives.