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Domestic violence in Central Alberta is getting more severe, with adequate supports lacking, say advocates

Red Deer Advocate - 11/29/2023

Domestic violence in Central Alberta is getting more severe and dangerous — and is compounded by a lack of long-term supports for abused women and children, say local advocates.

The situation "is absolutely heartbreaking," said Danica Hoffart, executive director of the Central Alberta Women's Emergency Shelter on Tuesday.

The organization was able to admit a total of 658 women and children into the shelter over the past year, based on the level of assessed danger at their homes, but had to turn 2,092 others away.

Some of these other abuse victims, who couldn't get out-of-region shelter spots, had to continue living with their abusers while getting outreach services from the shelter. With rising costs and low vacancy rates, many women simply don't have the financial means to get out of desperate situations, she added.

The same conclusion is drawn by Ian Wheeliker, executive director of the Central Alberta Outreach Centre. He had to turn away 95 women from getting secure transitional housing because Julietta's Place only offers 10 affordable suites for an 18-month program.

Last year, 24 women and 43 children stayed there — the rest were either sent to out-of-town transitional housing, if any was available, or stayed with family or friends. "In some cases, the women have said, 'It's safe for me to stay here (with the abuser) for a bit,' and we keep in contact with them," said Wheeliker.

But he's also unsettled by this, knowing the severity of domestic abuse in Alberta has been escalating: "At Red Deer hospital's ER, they have seen a significant increase in strangulations."

The 2023 report On the Front Lines: Striving to End Domestic Violence and Abuse Together, which compiles data from various Alberta shelters, backs up these observations.

Of surveyed abuse survivors, 65 per cent reported feeling at severe or extreme risk of being killed by a partner or former partner. Just over half felt their partner was capable of killing them.

Three-quarters (76 per cent) reported experiencing verbal, emotional or psychological abuse, while 42 per cent were choked and 40 per cent forced to have sex by their partners.

More than half (57 per cent) reported the physical abuse had gotten worse. "Sadly, that is not surprising, It's reflective of what we see," said Hoffart.

She and Wheeliker can't pinpoint why this is happening. They suggest could be more family economic pressures, more drug and alcohol use, combined with ongoing mental health impacts from the pandemic.

Wheeliker believes preemptive therapy and counselling with children who grew up witnessing domestic violence is the best way to turn the situation around and ensure the cycle doesn't repeat. But he said there is little government funding for this.

Some positive news is that Red Deer's transitional housing supply for victims of domestic violence is about to grow, with the expansion of the Central Alberta Women's Shelter.

Hoffart said 17 units (each one or two bedrooms) where women can stay for a year after leaving the shelter should be available by the fall of 2025. Also, 23 additional transitional housing units are planned to be built on shelter grounds in 2025.

The federal government's CMHC program is funding their construction, but Hoffart said the provincial government has yet to commit to funding their operational costs.

She noted base funding for women's shelters in Alberta hasn't increased since 2015, and this is particularly felt now that inflation is taking a bigger bite out of budgets.

Hoffart hopes to hire therapists and counsellors to work on improving the mental health of traumatized women and children — but she said this also depends on the availability of additional funding.