Surviving Abuse in the COVID-19 Era
Although many courts in Ontario have ceased hearing family matters that are not urgent, family law issues continue to be negotiated and litigated outside of court during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Access parents still clamour for parenting time, support recipients still ask for money, and conflict largely continues to rage on outside of court.
One area that warrants comment involves the potentially harmful consequences of social distancing measures. While the provincial and federal government routinely repeats the benefits of staying indoors, and in Toronto all non-essential workplaces and schools are closed, it is important to keep in mind that not everyone has the same experience of being isolated at home with family members.
All homes are not equal.
The fact is that schools and non-essential workplaces can provide refuge for spouses and children that live in abusive homes. Going to work or school can offer daily relief, even if temporary, from the victimization of a predatory parent or spouse. With the closing of most public venues, many people are now deprived of that daily refuge. Though safe from the disease, some of us are no less exposed to dangers at home when trapped with a toxic partner or parent.
From a family law perspective, this pandemic means that some of us are even more vulnerable than before and not just because of respiratory issues. For example, with job losses, people can become more financially reliant on their abusive partners. This results in a decreased likelihood to leave an unhealthy situation or to seek help. Things look even bleaker when one considers that it often takes several attempts for victims of abuse to leave a household for good.
Domestic abuse can take on several permutations: physical, sexual, psychological, financial. The likelihood of such elements being present in a home can only increase with social distancing measures that effectively imprison people inside their homes. To the predator parent or spouse, social distancing measures only provide greater opportunity to exercise power over their victims.
Thankfully, there are several options available to get a person out of such an abyss.
Call the Police
Like our heroic frontline workers in hospitals, the Police have not stopped doing their jobs, even though they are potentially exposed to contracting COVID-19. They, along with all first responders, deserve our plaudits for continuing to keep our streets and homes safe.
Victims of domestic violence can seek recourse to Police assistance. It is important to note that Police Officers in Ontario have a positive obligation to lay charges in domestic offences when there are reasonable and probable grounds to do so.
Although Police are far too often brought in during bad faith attempts to gain the advantage in matrimonial litigation, which is a regrettable misuse of public resources, there are numerous situations where Police assistance is absolutely critical. Consider contacting the police.
There are also a variety of social services that continue to offer assistance: including crisis lines, women’s centres and shelters during this time. These heroes also deserve our plaudits because they too are potentially exposed to COVID-19. Such social services are considered essential for the very reason that some people need to leave home even during a pandemic. There are many such facilities that continue to be open or have hotlines available 24-hours a day.
A few resources have been provided below.
Speak to Someone
One of the common features of domestic abuse, or abusive relationships, is that the abuser often creates distance between the victim and the victim’s friends and family. Gradually and over time, the abuser eliminates the victim’s social connections thus increasing the victim’s dependence on the abuser. This is done intentionally to give the abuser more power.
But if a victim has any friends left, any family members or any relationships where the bridges have not yet been burned, one should consider contacting them about removing oneself from a toxic home environment. People are often more willing to help than you would think.
Consider developing a list of 5 people to whom you could turn to speak about these issues. Can you speak to your parents? Siblings? Cousins? Friends? School mates? Colleagues?
There is also no point in being embarrassed about such issues. You need help. And more people suffer in silence than you would think.
As human beings, each day we deal with power dynamics, and master-slave scenarios. We have bosses, and we have those who are our dependants. But these dynamics become abusive and unhealthy when those in positions of power seek to destroy, consume, and decimate us physically, sexually, psychologically, or financially.
There is no reason then why a person should be embarrassed about finding oneself a victim of such a power-dynamic in a spousal relationship. It happens slowly, over time, and not in a way to alert you. Your sense of love, affection and guilt could have been preyed up to gradually tip the scales against you. If you are realizing that your relationship is in such a place, the best thing to do may be to get out and break the cycle as soon as possible. Sometimes, the best way to start that process is by speaking about it to someone you know.
Planning for an Emergency
It is also a good idea to have a plan in place if one starts to feel danger. A plan can provide a sense of confidence, something that is intentionally eroded by the abusive spouse. A plan gives a sense of direction, a sense of purpose, a step by step protocol to get one out of a difficult environment.
When developing such a plan, one can consider several things:
• Where will you go? Can you go to a friend or family members’ home, a community support centre or a hotel?
• How will you get to a safe place? If you don’t have a car, can you take a taxi, an Uber or get a ride from a friend?
• Will your children and/or pets be able to come with you? If not, where can they go? Do you have a friend or family member they could stay with?
• Do you have access to any funds? Should you start saving up? Is there any way that you can start putting money away? Can you qualify for the new CERB that the Government will be rolling out on April 1, 2020?
After you Leave
It is also important to consider what steps to take after you leave in order to remain safe and to keep a regular routine.
• You can document the abuse by writing down a description of what happened.
• What about physical evidence of the event – such as emails and text messages? How about photographs of harm or destroyed property? Have those been saved somewhere? This is especially important if they involve threats of violence.
• Has there been child abuse or neglect? Should the Children’s Aid Society be involved?
• Have you prepared a budget as you will need to start living off your own funds?
• Are you looking for a new residence? Where? How far is it from the children’s school?
Contact a Lawyer
Often one of the best things to do is contact a family lawyer. Lawyers can assist with the above and specifically help with the following:
• Getting a Restraining Order;
• Preparing a court Application;
• Getting temporary custody and financial support.
If one cannot afford a lawyer, a victim of abuse can contact Legal Aid Ontario to see if they qualify.
• Assaulted Women’s Helpline (Ontario): 416-663-0511 or 1-866-863-0511
• Toronto Police Services: 416-808-2222 or 9-1-1 in an Emergency
• Legal Aid Ontario –24/7 Domestic Abuse Hotline: 1-800-668-8258
• Children’s Aid Society- 416-924-4646.
None of the content of the above article should be considered legal advice.