More help needed for rural domestic violence victims in Alberta

Organizations say rural violence often a hidden problem in isolated areas

Original Article: CBC News |  April 23, 2018  |  Dan McGarvey  |

Alberta continues to have some of the highest rates of domestic violence across Canada, but much of it happens far away from big cities.

More help is needed for women experiencing violence in rural and isolated communities, according to frontline workers.

One of the province's leading domestic violence organizations says better education and awareness is needed among all Albertans, along with improved access to support services for victims.

"Some of the special challenges rural communities have is they have a lack of access to resources or to access resources they have to travel really far," said Andrea Silverstone, executive director of Sagesse.

The non-profit organization provides help to people involved in domestic violence both in outside of Alberta's cities.

"People who are more isolated have less friends and family members dropping into their lives, so they are less able to talk about the violence that's going on," said Silverstone.

Silverstone says there are also challenges around attitudes and beliefs around domestic violence in rural communities, which she says is the case province-wide.

"We have to do something about the fact that our rates are higher than other places in Canada," she said.

One of Sagesse's rural partners that serves people in and around Olds, Alta., says the need is likely way bigger than the hundreds of women who already rely on them for help.

"There's likely a secret component, a hidden component out there," said Darlene Hyatt with the Hope Pointe Community Church in Olds.

"We have all different age spans, young teenagers right through to women in their 70s, and the perpetrators are often teenagers through to people in their 70s as well," said Hyatt.

"There's no reason to believe the stats in rural areas are any different to anywhere else," she added. "It's certainly increased with the economic turmoil, probably because people are feeling more stressed."

Some of the challenges of getting victims and family members who suspect violence is taking place to come forward in a rural setting include overlapping family and work relationships and communities being tight-knit.

"Concerns about confidentiality are something that's more of a factor in a rural context," Hyatt said.

Social isolation is also a factor, with funds and resources sometimes difficult to access for farm spouses, with financial isolation and even transportation providing barriers for women seeking help.

"Sometimes on family farms there has also been generational secret-keeping about the issue, often because of shame," said Hyatt.

Hyatt says more provincial funding and mental health support is needed to help tackle the problem, along with a range of housing and daycare options to make it easier for women to leave a violent relationship.

Andrea Silverstone with Sagesse says the province has a framework to address and fund domestic violence but could always do more.

"I would like to see us being more and more engaged as a province in prevention. Every child in Alberta schools should be mandated to do some sort of program around understanding healthy relationships," Silverstone said, adding the province could play a role in that.

The province says it stands by survivors of domestic violence and is committed to helping women outside of Alberta's cities.

"Last year, we provided $6 million in emergency financial supports for 5,510 Albertans who were fleeing abuse," said Irfan Sabir, Minister of Community and Social Services.

"We are working to support prevention of domestic violence through our funding of $17 million into the Family and Community Safety Program and a $25 million increase to Family and Community Support Services," Sabir added.

The province say it is investing in agencies serving rural areas including: Sagesse, the Family Centre Society of Southern Alberta, North Rocky View Community Links Society, and the Oyen Family Community Support Services.

The advice from Silverstone to anyone experiencing a domestic violence situation is to call 911 or local rural RCMP detachment and check out the Sagesse website for a map of partner organizations and programming in rural areas.