‘He would sign in from a bus stop. He wouldn’t miss a session.’
United Way helped keep families safe during the pandemic by providing funds to help Caring Dads deliver remote support to men at risk of abusing. As we start to recover and return to in-person activities, the program is exploring ways to keep the benefits of virtual support meetings and counselling sessions.
Tim Kelly has been answering the same questions for two decades.
“Why do you help the men?” people have asked since he first joined Changing Ways — a London-based organization that provides counselling to men involved in intimate partner violence.
“Why do you spend any time working with them?”
To Kelly and the community agencies who partner with Changing Ways, the answer is obvious.
“We work with these men, because they have children and women in their life that they’re impacting. We focus on the person causing the harm to help them create safety for themselves and their families.
“It is child-centred work.”
That statement is an underlying theme of Caring Dads, a Changing Ways program that focuses specifically on helping fathers who abuse or neglect their children.
Launched in 2001 with $5,000 in United Way funding, Caring Dads has been so successful that it has been adapted by agencies across Canada, the U.S., England, Europe and Australia and translated into five languages. In Elgin County, London and Middlesex County it supports hundreds of men each year.
“It helps to see I’m not alone. When you talk out loud about the issues in an environment where you’re not judged, it helps you work these things out,” said one client interviewed. “Since being in the program, I know I’ve become a better dad to my son and I see how my words affect him.
“I never want to miss a meeting.”
It was because of that dad and hundreds more that staff knew they had to do something to keep contact with dads involved in the Caring Dads program when COVID-19 forced global shutdowns.
With funding from United Way Elgin Middlesex, staff bought electronic tablets for clients so they could log in for virtual support meetings and counselling sessions.
While the remote access was meant to be a temporary bandage it had a lasting benefit.
“It did remove many barriers,” said Caring Dads facilitator Carina Corradi, recalling one man charged with assaulting his partner, who was homeless during the pandemic.
“He would participate in the program from the street—from the bus stop,” she said. “He wouldn’t miss one session.
“That is powerful.”
Changing Ways works closely with family-serving agencies as well as the Children’s Aid Society and probation services. It has also embarked on a partnership with London’s Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support and Integration to adapt services to meet different needs of different communities, Kelly said.
During the first year of the pandemic, 395 men from London, St. Thomas and rural communities of Elgin and Middlesex Counties were mandated by court and referred by other agencies or themselves to participate in the Caring Dads Program—a nearly 30 per cent increase from the year before. And during the second year of pandemic restrictions including rolling shutdowns, the program was on track for another 30 per cent increase in requests for service.
COVID-19 restrictions created a perfect storm of some of the top “risk factors” linked to intimate partner violence, including isolation, job insecurity and housing uncertainty, said Kelly.
To address the increased risks for the Caring Dads in their program, staff incorporated more outreach into the service, contacting the men to check in between scheduled counselling and group sessions.
“We scrambled pretty quickly to figure out how to keep the work going, how to keep the referrals coming in . . . and say, ‘We’re here. We’re open for business,” said Kelly.
“One thing we never lost sight of was that there are people that are at risk with the men we work with,” Kelly said.
“Our focus is specifically to help these men create safety for their children. For their families.”