Support workers in 100 Mile House are reporting that there has been an increase in domestic violence after the 2017 wildfires.
Susann Collins, the executive director of the 100 Mile & District Women’s Centre, and Sara Hockett, the centre’s office co-ordinator, say they’ve seen double, and sometimes triple the number of cases since last summer than they would normally.
“Absolutely there has been an increase,” said Collins. “It’s been incredible. It’s been non-stop, like what we’ve never seen before.”
They also say the severity of the violence has increased as well.
“The impact on our resources is pushed to the limit,” said Hockett.
The cases of domestic violence, which may include financial, emotional, sexual and psychological abuse, as well as physical violence, while often complex, have also increased in severity, they said.
They don’t have complete numbers — people who access their services often take advantage of any one or multiple of a number of supports, anything from food and diapers, to counselling or legal aid or access to a safe house — but the increase has been felt in the office.
“It takes its toll. It’s important because we are dealing sometimes with extremely serious things. We are talking about someone’s life,” said Collins.
The increase, they suggest, comes from the trauma many faced during the wildfires, whether they were evacuated or living under the threat of evacuation.
“If there was a pre-existing tendency towards domestic abuse it escalated,” said Hockett, attributing that to the high-stress people were living under during the wildfire situations.
Trauma from the wildfires, combined with past trauma, affects the ability to cope and compounds the ability of people, both perpetrators and victims, to manage into the future, she said.
“It’s an extreme stressor. Smaller stressors are financial, smaller stressors are illnesses, or loss of a job, but then if you add fire and the threat to your whole livelihood and your life, if those things are happening then those are the things that set it right off,” she said.
“You are unable to cope anymore,” added Collins.
The Women’s Centre, located in the South Cariboo Business Centre on Birch Avenue, is often a first point of contact for women in need of support or fleeing violence.
One such woman said she owes the centre her life.
The woman, whom the Free Press is not naming because the impacts of an abusive relationship in her life are still ongoing, said she felt paralyzed when she approached the women’s centre for help.
She accessed counselling and legal aid to help her navigate the court system through the centre, as well as simply finding social support from others who may have also gone through similar things.
“When I fled I had to go into a shelter and it took me a long time to come to terms with actually leaving,” she said, adding that before she left she hid the fact that she was coming to the Women’s Centre for help.
“I was always supported in any decision I made and I was always told if I stayed, if I left and didn’t go back, or if I left and then went back I was always going to be supported and that was really important in my decision to leave.”
The desicion to leave was complex, she said, but the support she found as she worked her way through the system, was invaluable.
“I don’t feel alone here. I feel supported. And I don’t feel judged.”
The centre offers a multitude of services for people needing help.
Off the bat, people can walk in and take advantage of the food, clothing, diapers and small household items that the centre has to offer.
Hockett is often the first friendly face people will encounter when they walk in, and she also provides legal aid and access to pro-bono support for people coming up against the legal system (for men and women). Those issues could range from helping with paperwork, or telephone calls, to custody cases, to court orders or simply navigating the system.
“Sometimes you can be so traumatized it can be difficult to articulate what they need or navigate the system,” says Hockett.
The centre also has an in-house stop the violence counsellor who helps women escaping violence.
“Some of the trauma from the past or current actually prevents women from moving forward,” said Kalika Moody, the stop the violence counsellor. “By addressing the hurt and pain as well as strength building, coming from a place of knowledge and education we help to empower the women to move forward in their lives and to come to recognize within themselves the strengths and the gifts they each as individuals carry.”
For those looking for immediate help and those fleeing violence, the centre also can connect people to the safe house program, where women are helped to get to safety, given a temporary and safe place to live and connected to the services they may need short term as well as possible places to go, like transition houses, on a long-term basis.
The safe house program is also available 24/7, through VictimLink by calling 1-800-563-0808 and asking for the 100 Mile House safe house.
Other resources in the community available for those in need are through the Cariboo Family Enrichment Centre, as well as Axis Family Resources.
Each will help make connections between the various organizations in the community.
Collins and Hockett said the women’s centre is available to help women as little or as much as they need, for as long a time as necessary.
Based on numbers from Fort MacMurray, they expect the uptick in the need for support to continue for approximately two years and have applied for Red Cross funding to assist in the meantime.
All in all, though, they say they’re there to help no matter what.
“No matter what, we try and find what the person is looking for to make sure in some way, shape or form, to ease someone’s suffering and if you can do that in whatever way you do that in your life I think you’ve achieved something,” said Hockett.