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Professor’s expertise in gender-based violence sought by emergency planners

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Cathy Carter-Snell, right, explains evidence collection in a training video.

Cathy Carter-Snell, right, in a training video.


Before government-mandated lockdowns forced millions of people to remain isolated at home, Cathy Carter-Snell, PhD, was asked by planning agencies in B.C. and Calgary for advice on ways to reduce the risk of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“People who are isolated are more at risk of gender-based violence,” notes the professor in the School of Nursing and Midwifery. A community advocate, Carter-Snell sits on a number of associations and boards that focus on improving care for victims of sexual assault. She has taught at Mount Royal since 1995 and is an active researcher.

In 2017, Carter-Snell undertook a joint research project into sexual violence during disasters. Her research partners were from B.C. and New Orleans, and the three of them conducted an environmental scan of 24 Canadian agencies’ use of gender-based violence practices. They then researched four Canadian and four American sites that had experienced disasters.

Among their key findings: women are more likely to be victims of violence and to lose their jobs because of the types of work they do, and women who are isolated may have no internet access or transportation and no ability to escape.

“With COVID-19, everyone is isolated and often partners restrict access to the internet, monitor their calls, and make it difficult for their partners to leave the house,” Carter-Snell explains. “In Vancouver alone, they had a 300 per cent increase in calls to the crisis line and shelter within three weeks. One of the first COVID-related deaths we had in Canada was out east and it was somebody who was killed because she was isolated with her husband and the violence escalated.”

Another finding from the research was that agencies are not consistently collecting data or sharing it.

“If a woman goes to a hospital reporting a sexual assault, the emergency management agency wouldn’t know about it. The violence, and the health effects after the violence, can occur for up to two years after the disaster, as can increased health care utilization,” Carter-Snell points out. “Hospitals and doctors’ offices won’t necessarily pick up a year-and-a-half from now that the health crisis a person is having is related to something that happened during COVID.

“So we don’t have good data,” she says. And that makes planning difficult.

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Carter-Snell first met with the Calgary Emergency Management Agency in 2018 and presented the findings of her research. “They got right on board, got their staff to start developing a gender-based violence plan, and were probably the first in Canada to have an emergency management agency with a gender-based violence plan.

“Even the fact that they were reaching out and asking the questions was really important.”

Knowing some of the risks, officials in the City of Calgary reached out to Carter-Snell again, as did the B.C. government, as they started planning for the COVID-19 lockdown.

Carter-Snell’s research found that domestic violence services are sometimes reduced during a disaster and may take months or years to reopen, a reality that puts victims at risk. Her advice to the City was, “Make sure to maintain services to victims, or if they have to be shut down because of COVID concerns, get them up and running or an alternative service as soon as possible,” she says. It’s also important to keep the issue at the forefront and communications lines open.

“Increase public service announcements about what signs to look for in people for possible intimate partner violence and what services are open. At the local, provincial and federal levels, make sure aid packages are available and resources are in place for the people who are not lucky enough to still be employed.”

Carter-Snell says the advice was well received. “I know the shelters have been putting out announcements saying they’re open for victims to call. But I would like to see more information in terms of what people might look out for with neighbours, friends and family.”

This would include signs that someone is more fearful, is communicating less with other people or being put down more by their partner.

A common type of intimate partner violence is associated with the situational stress that arises when people lose their jobs and start worrying about money. “Everybody is stressed right now. The longer this goes on, the more angry and disillusioned people will become and so there’s a continued risk, even when we lift the isolation, particularly when people may not have jobs.”

Adding to all of these challenges is the fact that few victims of sexual assault ever report the crime to the police — only 10 per cent in normal times, and much less during a community disaster. “It just really highlights the need for us to be alert, watching for this kind of abuse, sharing data and recognizing that it can happen.”

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In April, Carter-Snell also provided a webinar for the Academy of Forensic Nurses with participants from Canada, the U.S. and Scotland. She emphasized the need to ensure sexual assault and domestic violence services be deemed essential, that collaboration occurs among emergency services before during and after emergencies, that the public knows where to obtainhealth services, and that data collection be improved.

"Cathy's work provides important insights into understanding the increase in frequency and severity of domestic violence occurrences during disasters like the current COVID-19 pandemic,” notes Caroline McDonald-Harker, director of Mount Royal’s Centre for Community Disaster Research (CCDR).

“Her expertise in the area of disasters and domestic violence contributes to the important trans-disciplinary disaster work that we do at the CCDR."

Carter-Snell provides guidance that is easy to follow — not just for the authorities and planning agencies — during a community disaster. It’s simple: keep an eye out for people who are physically and socially isolated.

“Do you know your neighbours well enough to realize they haven’t been out for a while? Maybe you haven’t seen your next door neighbour for a month and he or she is at risk.

"Look out for neighbours and be aware if you haven’t heard from your aunt or the elderly person down the street for some time. Just checking in is helpful, just general kindness. Look out for each other — that’s all we can ask.”

Learn about the School of Nursing and Midwifery in the Faculty of Health, Community and Education. Read how MRU nursing and midwifery students are being fast-tracked into the workforce to help during the COVID-19 crisis.

May 4, 2020 — Melissa Rolfe

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