Domestic Abuse: What People With Kids Need To Know To Plan Their Exit

The pandemic and holidays are exacerbating volatile situations.
"Where there is spousal violence, there is also child abuse in 30 to 60 per cent of cases. Exposure to family violence is the most common form of emotional maltreatment of children." ― Health Canada
"Where there is spousal violence, there is also child abuse in 30 to 60 per cent of cases. Exposure to family violence is the most common form of emotional maltreatment of children." ― Health Canada

Content warning: story contains descriptions of intimate partner violence, physical and emotional abuse. If your website history is being monitored, here’s how to clear it on most browsers. Should you be logged into a Google account, here’s how to wipe your activity.

As we go through the second wave of the pandemic, we’re once again spending more time confined at home and grappling with stressful new realities.

“COVID has resulted in a lot of new financial hurdles for families. And it has resulted in a lot of new emotional hurdles,” LLP Associate lawyer Alyssa Bach, of Toronto law firm Shulman & Partners told HuffPost Canada. “We’re seeing job loss, which is putting financial strain and tension on families. We’re also seeing isolation from others. Being confined together can be tough.”

A well-documented outcome of the COVID-19 crisis has been a global spike in domestic abuse ― it’s what the United Nations has referred to as “a shadow pandemic.”

A September report from 17 police forces across Canada indicated there were more than 38,000 calls for domestic disturbances and violence between March and June of 2020 ― that’s an increase of more than 4,000 calls compared to the same period in 2019.

Divorce and separation rates are also on the rise. And, according to Bach, “With the 40 per cent increase in calls to our firm this year comes an increase in one of the significant drivers of divorce – abuse.” Leaving an abusive spouse is typically frightening and overwhelming, and those feelings are compounded when children are involved.

Here is Bach’s advice for parents contemplating leaving an abusive relationship, keeping in mind that every situation is unique and warrants its own advice:

Know how to recognize different forms of abuse

Red flags of spousal abuse include any kind of coercion, manipulation or intimidation. “While all spousal abuse comes from the desire to control another person, it may present as emotional, physical or financial abuse, or a combination of the three,” said Bach.

Emotional abuse is not always easy to recognize, but over time it can eat away at the victim’s self-esteem, making leaving harder. “It might look like one partner saying, ‘If you leave me you will be worse off,’ or ‘If you leave, I will keep the kids,’ or ‘If you leave, there will be consequences,’” Bach said.

“In a financial context, sometimes that means that by the end of the relationship one parent has no concept of the family finances. If the other person is withholding that information there can be problems,” said Bach. It can also involve being pressured into agreeing to sign for assets or debts, or the abusive spouse observing and dictating how the family finances are spent.

“Upon separation, when you have heightened emotions and tensions, a situation that might not have previously resulted in an altercation can escalate, and COVID has only made things worse.”

Often (but not always) physical abuse leaves identifiable marks. Shoving, raising a hand in a menacing way and making threats of violence are all early warning signs that a spouse could become violent. The lawyer recommends calling the police and making a report if violence occurs, both for the safety of the parent who is leaving and the protection of the children. If there is immediate risk to children, the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) can also be involved.

Statistically Black and Indigenous Canadians are overrepresented in police-involved deaths and injuries and in foster care, which has created a climate of mistrust in the justice and child protection systems among members of these communities. Canadians experiencing abuse who do not feel safe reporting may choose to start by seeking counsel and resources ― outside of an emergency situation ― from a culturally specific support organization. In Ontario, Talk4Healing provides talk, phone and text support for and by Indigenous women, in 14 languages. And in some Canadian cities, Black-led shelters have been created in response to systemic racism within the shelter system.

Parents also need to be aware that if there have been signs of emotional or financial abuse, there is a higher likelihood of this escalating to physical abuse down the line, Bach cautioned.

Be up front with your lawyer about abuse having taken place

“Separation is a time of great change, upheaval and distress, even in the best of times. It can be the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship because you’re taking this already volatile situation and exacerbating it with separation,” Bach told HuffPost Canada. “Upon separation, when you have heightened emotions and tensions, a situation that might not have previously resulted in an altercation can escalate, and COVID has only made things worse.”

For those looking into divorce proceedings it’s important to advise your legal counsel if you have been ― or are still being ― subjected to any form of abuse. Ideally at the intake stage, you should disclose the types and frequency of abusive behaviours and the impact the abuse has had on the children.

“You want to be honest with your lawyer at the initial intake and consultation stage, because we will plan every step of the process taking into account any abuse that has existed.”

If you do not have the financial resources to hire a lawyer in anticipation of a separation, there are other free and low-cost options for getting legal advice:

The Barbra Schlifer Clinic, in Toronto, for example, offers legal advice and counselling to women from equity-seeking communities, leaving domestic abuse. “Certain shelters across the country also provide resources, beyond temporary accommodation, and there are also family law information centres at the courts,” said Bach.

Disclosing abuse to your lawyer helps with safety planning at every stage of the divorce.
Disclosing abuse to your lawyer helps with safety planning at every stage of the divorce.

Research your available resources

If a parent is contemplating leaving an abusive situation, they need to work on having a safety plan and support system in place.

Bach said it’s important to identify if you have family or friends you can confide in. It also helps to have a family doctor and to become familiar with local contacts and resources, including: shelters, helplines, free counselling services and Police Victim Services. (See resources at the end of this article)

“These resources can assist with safety planning as well as directing people to other sources of help,” said the lawyer.

At the stage of researching, it is important to be aware that abusers may be looking at your online browsing history or cell phone records.

“Technology and the internet are powerful tools for anyone experiencing domestic violence. They can be essential resources to access help and information, and valuable platforms to connect with friends, family members, advocates, and service providers. Unfortunately, they can also be used by abusive partners to begin, continue, or escalate abuse, making it all the more important to ensure your safety online,” explains the National Domestic Violence Hotline on their website.

The organization recommends following the internet safety guidelines detailed here.

Put safety precautions in place for the children, before announcing plans to separate

“If a client comes to us and discloses concerns about an abusive response, upon telling their partner there will be a separation, we make sure they have family, friend or professional resources for when that conversation takes place,” said Bach.

The lawyer suggested making sure their kids are at a different location, when telling an abusive spouse of the intention to leave. COVID restrictions can make this more complicated than usual, so it would be worth contacting an abuse survivors organization or shelter in your area for advice on how best to go about this.

“Minimize any kind of exposure to abuse for the children, for example have the kids at their grandparents’ house,” suggested Bach. She also recommended making sure family members and friends are familiar with different crisis resources. “Should anything escalate, know that the police can be called,” she added.

Prepare as best you can for the transition to single parenting

Often, a parent will struggle to leave, even if they are experiencing spousal abuse, because they may be concerned that their children will fare worse with a transition to a single-parent family. “They might be thinking a two-parent home is stable for them, and it’s what they’re familiar with,” said Bach. Getting family counselling in place for the period following the separation and figuring out things like how to address new childcare needs in advance can help.

Financial considerations may also come into play, when a person struggles to leave an abusive relationship: “not knowing if they have the financial resources to support themselves,” said Bach. So if the circumstances permit, having a financial plan is wise. That might mean setting aside money, slowly over time, for first and last month’s rent or finding new or additional work to help make ends meet going forward.

It is normal to feel isolated, overwhelmed and afraid, when leaving a situation of abuse with children. Above all, be kind to yourself, recognize that you are not to blame, and make use of all the supports and resources available. There are safety nets for abuse survivors in Canada. You are not alone.

More resources


Shelters in your area can be reached 24/7 at Shelter Safe. This is an online resource for women and their children seeking safety from violence and abuse. Their clickable map serves as a quick resource to connect women with the nearest shelter.

General support is available at The National Domestic Violence Helpline: 1-800-799-7233.

Resources for LGBTQ2S+ and non-binary survivors of violence are available from the Vancouver-based organization Battered women’s Support Services (BWSS).

The Canadian Centre for Men and Families provides counselling and resources for male victims of domestic violence and abuse.

Organizations like Ending Violence Association of Canada and outlets like Global News have compiled national and provincial resources. We’ve rounded up a few helpful ones:



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