The Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre has seen a 50% increase in usage of its crisis line during the pandemic, according to the Centre’s administration and volunteer supervisor Lindsay Haacke.
This comes as a new report from the United Nations warns that coronavirus lockdown measures are causing a surge in violence against women and girls worldwide, and as recent Peterborough Police media releases reveal a disturbing number of arrests reported for domestic assault.
Staff at KSAC are aware that the COVID-19 lockdown measures may leave people stuck at home with abusive partners, and feeling like they can’t leave. The Centre’s in-person programs and counselling are being delivered remotely, which is an imperfect solution because those in need of help may not have a private place to speak about abuse. That makes the crisis line even more important.
To meet the increased need, KSAC staff have expanded their crisis line availability. The Centre continues to offer its 24-hour phone line in partnership with the Sexual Assault Centre of Kingston. In addition, the Centre’s texting line will soon be available 24/7 (it is currently run only during office hours). And KSAC’s online webchat has also been expanded — it used to be available only on weekend evenings, but now it’s also available during business hours.
Volunteers offer supportive listening
To provide these expanded services, KSAC is mostly relying on volunteers. Valentina Zuluaga, a student at Trent University, has been picking up as many shifts as she can on the webchat since the pandemic started.
“I’ve been trying to volunteer a lot. People are at home all the time, and they might be home with the perpetrator [of their abuse],” she says.
On KSAC’s website, the webchat appears as a small green “Chat” button on the bottom of the page – click it and a box opens with the message: “How can we support you?” Entering a message connects a visitor to one of KSAC’s volunteers.
For cases where someone is in the middle of a crisis, volunteers are trained in grounding techniques. Volunteer Brittany Cray explains, “Grounding is helping someone come back into the present. If someone is having an anxiety or panic attack or a flashback, it’s about helping them regulate their emotions and helping them come back to the present, rather than get wrapped up in the what-ifs or the past mindset.”
Volunteers can’t offer counselling, but they can provide supportive listening and connect people to other services.
“What we can do is active listening … letting them express themselves and not judging them,” says Zuluaga. “For volunteers it can be hard to know what is the line between giving them counselling and giving support … The web-chat is like a bridge so that they can know that they can get support and get the help that they need in the Centre.”
During each shift a KSAC staff member is on-call as a backup to help volunteers through difficult calls. Zuluaga remembers a tough moment volunteering on the webchat. She had received a message from a person who was experiencing suicidal thoughts.
“I was worried that I wouldn’t pay enough attention and have her end up hurting herself, so I texted my backup,” she says. “She helped me communicate with the person.… She said try to ask this girl if she’s planning on doing it tonight or if she’s doing it right now or just thinking about it.”
After hearing back that she was not immediately harming herself, Zuluaga sent a message explaining that she could connect her with KSAC services and that they could help.
“After I told her that she left the chat,” Zuluaga says. “Most of them leave the chat and you don’t know what to do. You help them, you try your best and sometimes they leave the chat. You don’t know what they did, you don’t know who they were, you don’t know if they’re okay – you just hope that you gave them the best that you could give them.”
New funding for sexual assault centres
Haacke says that KSAC has been working towards making crisis services more accessible for several years. When she first started working with the Centre nine years ago, Haacke remembers the crisis line was only available by telephone. Four years ago, KSAC became one of the first rape crisis centres in the province to pilot a web-chat service.
Now, with new funding, KSAC is launching a 24-hour texting crisis support line by the end of May. The bulk of this new funding comes from the federal government’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan unveiled on March 18, which is now valued at $146.8 billion in government programs.
Of these billions, $40 million was allocated to Women and Gender Equality Canada, the government department led by Maryam Monsef, MP for Peterborough–Kawartha and Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Minister for Rural Economic Development. “Rates of gender based violence were high pre-COVID. The isolation measures have made the problem worse, with an increase in the rates and severity of violence,” Monsef writes in an email to Peterborough Currents. “I have the opportunity to work with leaders across the country and right here in Peterborough to make life better for Canadians.”
KSAC has received $25,000 from this funding initiative in addition to $5,600 from the Community Foundation of the Kawartha Lakes, according to the Centre’s executive director Lisa Clarke. This funding covers six-months of a 24-hour texting crisis line.
Alisha Fisher, prevention and outreach coordinator, says, “We’ve had a lot of clients texting us during our off-hour time… and these are texts that are coming in between midnight and 3 a.m… They have this coping strategy to keep themselves alive by being awake when their abuser is sleeping and so they’re texting during this time.”
Staff hope that more hours through more avenues means more support for those who need it.
Using this new funding, KSAC has hired a new Crisis Services Coordinator to develop this new texting service. For now, those in crisis can reach out to staff and volunteers on the phone (1-866-298-7778), text (705-710-5234) or web-chat (www.kawarthasexualassaultcentre.com) crisis lines.
This article was adapted from a Peterborough Currents email newsletter sent to our subscribers on May 6, 2020. It was edited to fit the new context. To read the original newsletter, click here.