Introduction

The Violence Against Women (VAW) Emergency Shelter Standards are intended for VAW emergency shelters funded by the Ministry of Community and Social Services (MCSS).

The standards outline the expectations of the ministry, and are intended to support VAW emergency shelters in providing consistent, high quality services to women and their dependents across the province.

Ministry of Community and Social Services

The ministry funds a range of programs and services to help women and their dependents live free from violence and/or abuse. These programs and services are delivered through social service organizations across Ontario, and include:

  • Emergency Shelters
  • Crisis and Support Services
  • Counselling Services
  • Transitional and Housing Support Services
  • Provincial Crisis Lines

Violence Against Women Emergency Shelters

Violence against women is understood to be the intentional and systematic use of tactics to establish and maintain power and control over women's thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and behaviours. Shelter services in Ontario were created as a response to domestic violence and the systemic inequality experienced by women. VAW emergency shelters provide a range of services across the province in urban, rural, and remote parts of Ontario, including communities with limited road access in the far north. Services are delivered with the recognition that women access shelter services on a voluntary basis, and that women have the right to make their own choices and decisions about the services they receive. Shelter services are intended to be women-centered, to support the safety of women and dependents fleeing violence, and to focus on each woman's individual immediate and long-term needs.

The ministry enters into annual transfer-payment agreements, also known as service contracts, to fund VAW emergency shelters. These contracts outline the services the ministry is funding, including the expectations and conditions that apply. Regular reporting allows transfer payment agencies and ministry staff to monitor performance in relation to both the financial and service expectations agreed to in the service contract.

The majority of ministry-funded VAW emergency shelters are non-profit agencies with independent Boards of Directors. The Board of Directors is responsible for ensuring that the mandate, mission, and values of the shelter are followed, reviewing budgets and expenditures, and meeting ministry expectations and contract requirements. Some ministry-funded VAW shelters are located on First Nation territories which are managed by the First Nation Chief and Council.

While the standards outline the ministry's expectations, the standards are not intended to act as legal advice. VAW shelters are encouraged to seek their own legal advice related to ministry expectations and the operations of the shelter.

Violence Against Women Emergency Shelter Program Objectives

Ministry-funded VAW shelters provide community-based emergency shelter and crisis support services 24/7 for women and their dependents who have experienced violence and/or abuse. The program objectives are as follows:

  • To provide community-based emergency shelter and crisis support services for women and their dependents who have experienced violence and/or abuse;
  • To provide crisis phone counselling, including assistance with safety planning, providing information on rights, options and available services, referrals and system navigation; and
  • To support safety planning for women and their dependents, who are experiencing violence and/or abuse and address their immediate safety concerns.

Services and supports may include:

  • Supportive counselling
  • Temporary safe and secure shelter residence
  • Provision of food and other residential supports (e.g. blankets, hygiene products)
  • Emergency transportation
  • Referrals or linking women to alternative accommodations
  • Assisting with housing applications
  • Provision of information about rights, options, and available services
  • Development of safety strategies or plans for women and their children
  • Assistance with information on the justice system, immigration, transportation and cultural interpretation
  • Services through the local crisis phone line
  • Outreach to women, including promoting shelter services
  • Advocacy on behalf of the woman and her children
  • Children's support services

Legislative Requirements

All shelters must comply with any and all applicable federal, provincial, territorial and, municipal laws, statutes, regulations and orders. VAW shelters located on First Nation territories should consider any exceptions or requirements to provincial and municipal laws, statutes, and regulations. The following pieces of legislation should be considered in relation to service delivery.

French Language Services Act, 1990, c F.32.

The French Language Services Act (1990) (FLSA) guarantees an individual's right to receive services in French from government of Ontario ministries and agencies in 25 designated areas. VAW shelters, which must comply with the FLSA are obligated to provide an active offer of French language services to Francophone clients/residents.

Accessibility for Ontarians Disabilities Act, 2005, SO 2005, c 11.

VAW shelters must comply with the Accessibility for Ontarians Disabilities Act, particularly in regards to:

  • Customer service (respectful, integrated, equal access to services)
  • Employment
  • Information and communication

Child and Family Services Act, RSO 1990, c C 11.

The Child and Family Services Act promotes the best interests, protection and well-being of children. Shelters must comply as the Act impacts services provided for women and children including duty to report.

Human Rights Code, RSO 1990, C H. 19.

As per the Human Rights Code, every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods and facilities, without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, family status or disability. Shelters must consider the Code in all aspects of service delivery.

Occupational Health and Safety Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. O.1

As per the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers have responsibilities with respect to health and safety in the work place to establish procedures for dealing with workplace hazards and with respect to violence/abuse and harassment in the workplace.

Overview of the Standards

The standards outline the minimum requirements for all ministry-funded VAW emergency shelters. The ministry recognizes that some shelters provide a level of service that exceeds these minimum standards, and the ministry encourages agencies to continue to do so.

The goal of the standards is to promote consistent, high quality emergency shelter services to women and their children across the province. The standards will provide guidance on:

  • Ministry expectations to support the development of shelter policies and procedures, and to guide program planning, management, and operations;
  • Supports for agencies on training and orientation of their VAW emergency shelter staff; and
  • Clarification of authority, responsibility, and accountability within and between VAW shelters and the ministry, including monitoring measures.

Guiding Principles for VAW Emergency Shelter Standards

  • All women, with or without dependents, who experience violence and/or abuse will be provided access to emergency shelter services, regardless of their ability , race, sexual orientation, political or religious beliefs, ethno-cultural background, First Nation, Métis, or Inuit identity, or whether they identify as two-spirited, cisgender or transgender women.
  • All women and their dependents are provided access to emergency shelter services, including but not limited to women with mental health needs or who use substances.
  • Shelters are committed to reducing barriers that may impact women and dependents accessing shelter services.
  • Shelter services are respectful to the diversity of women and dependents, and are provided in an inclusive environment, free of discrimination and harassment.
  • Women's lived experiences are valued and taken into consideration in the delivery of shelter services.
  • Shelter services are responsive to the cultural, spiritual, and religious needs of women and their dependents.
  • Shelters will provide services that recognize the unique needs of children, which could include providing referrals to community services.
  • Training and shelter policies and procedures encourage, improve, and maintain the wellbeing and safety of all individuals residing, contributing, and working in the shelter.

Glossary of Terms

Access to services: Any woman and/ or her dependents who receive services in the shelter, referrals to services in the community, or information and safety planning support over the phone through the crisis line.

Cisgender: A person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex.

Client: A person receiving services from the shelter.

Dependents: Children and/or family members affected by violence and/or abuse, who are currently residing in the home of the woman seeking services.

Emergency Shelter/Shelter: Temporary residence that is available 24/7 for women and dependents who have experienced violence and/or abuse.

Preliminary Intake Information: Information obtained from the shelter resident upon intake such as name and date of birth of women and dependents, and information related to safety concerns and risks.

Resident: A person who has accessed shelter services.

Remote and isolated communities: Communities that have limited local services, situated far from urban centres and/or without year-round road access.

Rights: Rights, freedoms and legal entitlements in accordance with the laws of the Province of Ontario and/or Canada.

Shelter at capacity: When a shelter can no longer admit women and their dependents due to lack of available beds.

Survivor: A women who has experienced violence and/or abuse in any of its forms.

Transition: Services and supports provided by the shelter in an effort to support women and dependents to move on from their stay at the shelter.

Transgender: An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. Individuals under the transgender umbrella may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms.

Violence against women: The intentional and systematic use of tactics to establish and maintain power and control over women's thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and behaviours.

VAW Shelter Standards

1. Access to Shelter Services

1.1 Access Criteria

Shelters will admit women and their dependents 24/7, and must have a written policy that articulates the access criteria, which should include the following:

  • Shelter services are for all those who identify as women, aged 16 years and older, and their dependents, who are experiencing, threatened by, and/or affected by violence and/or abuse.

Dependents

Shelters will have a written procedure on how staff will support women and their dependents who access shelter services. A dependent refers to those who are at a minimum of 18 years of age or younger. Dependents may include children and/or family members who are in the care of women seeking shelter services. Access to shelter services will include the completion of an assessment of immediate safety needs. Based on the assessment, shelters will provide services to women and their dependents, if available, or provide referrals to more appropriate services in the community.

Women Who Do Not Meet Access Criteria

The shelter will have a written policy that outlines the steps the shelter will take to refer women and dependents who do not meet the eligibility criteria to appropriate services. Shelters will have up-todate information on local service providers to refer women and dependents.

1.2 Shelter at Capacity

The shelter will have a written policy and procedure that outlines the steps that will be taken to refer women and dependents to alternative shelter or community services when the shelter is full. These steps will include completing an assessment of safety concerns, safety planning, as appropriate, and working with the woman in an effort to find the most appropriate solution to support her safety. Shelter policies will acknowledge that women may choose not to access alternative shelters or services.

In the case when the shelter is full, women may be eligible for emergency financial assistance through Ontario Works. Emergency financial assistance may be provided more than once in a six month period for women fleeing violence. The ministry encourages shelters to work with the local Ontario Works administrator to strengthen referral processes between VAW emergency shelters and local Ontario Works services.

1.3 Intake and Assessment

The shelter will have an intake procedure, which includes the completion of an intake form, an initial assessment of the woman and dependents' experience of violence and/or abuse and level of risk, and safety planning.

Shelters will obtain women and dependents' preliminary information within 24 hours of being admitted to the shelter. Preliminary information includes name and date of birth of women and dependents, and information related to safety concerns and risks. In addition to preliminary information, shelters will determine the appropriate length of time to complete the full intake and assessment procedure. Shelter policies and procedures may acknowledge that women may choose not to participate in the intake and assessment process. For additional information on safety planning and risk assessment, see standard 3.3 Safety Assessment and Risk Management.

Where possible, the shelter will provide transportation assistance for women and dependents travelling to the shelter.

1.4 Length of Stay

The Ministry recognizes that women who are accessing shelter services may face a number of circumstances that impact their length of stay. As such, shelters will have a written policy that outlines an appropriate length of stay for women and dependents. The length of stay policy will take into consideration the unique situation of each woman and the localcommunity realities, including the availability of affordable housing and/or second stage housing, and the demand for shelter services in the community. The ministry does not support transfers to other VAW shelters solely because women and dependents' length of stay at the shelter has expired.

1.5 Transitioning from the Shelter

The shelter will have a written procedure that outlines the various reasons for women and dependents transitioning from the shelter, which could include but is not limited to:

  • The woman has found alternative housing;
  • The woman has chosen to return to her partner;
  • The woman has voluntarily decided to leave the shelter;
  • The woman poses a safety risk to other residents;
  • The woman breaches the safety policies of the shelter;
  • The woman has been transferred to another shelter due to safety concerns;
  • The woman's current needs would be more effectively served by other agencies and resources.

When transitioning from the shelter, shelter staff will notify women and dependents that if they need support, they are welcome to contact the shelter for additional information and referrals to resources and community services.

1.6 Referrals to Other Services

The shelter will have a written policy that outlines how the shelter will work collaboratively with women and dependents to make referrals to other services such as children's mental health services, housing and legal supports, counselling, and mental health and addictions services.

1.7 Shelter-to-Shelter Transfer

The shelter will have a written policy that outlines the reasons women and dependents may be transferred to another shelter. The ministry encourages shelters to prioritize transfers related to women and dependents' safety and security concerns. The ministry recognizes that shelters must take into consideration the demand for shelter services from women in the community, and that women may request to be transferred to another shelter. Shelter transfers should be the least intrusive and disruptive to the lives of women and dependents.

1.8 Not Returning to the Shelter

The shelter will have a written policy and procedure regarding how the shelter will respond to and work with women and dependents who are residing in the shelter and do not return to the shelter at the time they had specified. The ministry encourages shelters to work with women to determine how they would like the shelter to respond in the case she does not return. Shelters will have a protocol with the local police, which will include the relevant procedures to respond to missing persons, including women and dependents.

The shelter is required to submit a Serious Occurrence Report to the ministry once the shelter has determined that the women's circumstances are high risk based on the Serious Occurrences guidelines. For more information, see standard 5.8 Serious Occurrences.

2. Client/Resident Rights and Shelter Responsibilities

2.1 Right to Receive Service

As articulated in the guiding principles, the shelter will have a written policy that outlines that all women and dependents at risk of or experiencing violence and/or abuse have the right to access shelter services, when available and appropriate.

2.2 Resident Rights and Responsibilities

The shelter will have a written policy that outlines the rights of women and dependents accessing shelter services, which will include:

  • The right to be treated with respect and to be free from discrimination
  • The right to self-determination and individual decision-making
  • The right to a fair and clear complaint process without fear of reprisal
  • The right to provide input and feedback into shelter programs
  • The right to receive support from staff and identify short-term and long-term priorities
  • The right to information about services and resources in order to make informed decisions
  • The right to confidentiality of personal information and identity

The rights of women and dependents accessing shelter services will be regularly communicated to clients/residents.

2.3 Privacy and Right to Confidentiality

The shelter will have a written policy and procedure to protect the privacy and confidentiality of all women and dependents who receive services including current and former clients/residents in the shelter.

The policy will include the following:

  • Board members, management, staff, volunteers, visitors, and women and dependents will sign a confidentiality agreement developed by the shelter to maintain the confidentiality of all current and former shelter clients/residents;
  • The shelter will not confirm admission, disclose the whereabouts, or any information about women or dependents, unless there is an imminent risk to the woman and her dependents or as required by law;
  • Shelter staff will obtain consent from women and dependents, prior to consulting with or providing referrals to other service providers.

2.4 Consent from Women and Dependents

The shelter will have a written policy stating that information recorded or known about women and dependents will not be shared with outside agencies without the written consent from women, unless required by law. Written consent should be obtained from all clients/residents 16 years of age and older and indicate the type of information, how, and with whom personal information may be shared. The written policy will indicate that women and dependents may withdraw written consent at any time.

2.5 Women and Dependents' Records

The shelter will have a written policy and procedure to protect the records of all current and former residents, in paper and electronic form, from destruction, theft, or damage.

The written policy and procedure will guide the management of service records, which includes how records are to be:

  • Maintained and secured
  • Removed, transferred, and destroyed

The written policy will include a statement of women and dependents' right to access their records, unless prohibited by law, and how they will be informed of this right.

2.6 Food and Nutrition

Shelters will have a written policy, outlining how they will make every effort to provide food that is responsive to the religious, cultural, nutritional, and dietary needs of women and dependents. Shelters may use Canada's Food Guide for guidance on the size, variety, quality, and nutritional value of meals.

2.7 Complaints Process

The shelter will have a written policy and procedure outlining how women and dependents can report and attempt to resolve complaints. The policy and procedure will outline how and when women and dependents accessing shelter services will be informed of the complaints process. Each shelter will regularly communicate and make available the complaints policy and procedure to women and dependents, and maintain written records of formal complaints and their attempted or actual resolution.

2.8 Supporting the Safety and Security of Shelter Clients/ Residents

Shelters will have a written policy and procedure that outlines how they will work with women and dependents to assess behavior that may impact the safety and security of other shelter residents, while balancing the safety concerns of all women and dependents in the shelter.

2.9 Use of Substances

The ministry expects that shelters provide access to all women seeking shelter services, including women who use substances. The shelter will have a policy and procedure that outlines how they will provide support to women who use substances, which could include the assessment of immediate safety needs and relevant community supports. The written policy and procedure will outline how the shelter will respond to women who are in possession of substances and or use substances on shelter premises.

2.10 Supports for Women and Dependents with Mental Health Needs

The ministry expects that shelters will provide access to emergency shelter services to all women and dependents, including women with mental health needs. The shelter will have a written procedure that ensures services are responsive to women and children with mental health needs. The written procedure will outline how staff will work with women with mental health concerns to assess the safety risks that they are experiencing, their need for shelter services, and the relevant community and mental health supports.

3. Program Standards

3.1 Crisis Line Services

The shelter will ensure that crisis line services are available by phone and text telephone (Some shelters may use the Bell Relay System (BRS).) 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days each year.

Shelters will have continuity of service plans in place, in the case of an emergency or when telephone lines are down.

3.2 Residential Support

The shelter will have a written policy that outlines how the shelter will meet women and dependents' basic needs including the provision of safe accommodation, meals, emergency clothing, personal hygiene supplies, laundry facilities, and baby supplies.

3.3 Safety Planning and Risk Assessment

The ministry recognizes that safety planning is a fluid and ongoing process. Shelters will have a written procedure that outlines how each woman accessing shelter services will complete an assessment using a risk assessment tool (Shelters may choose the risk assessment tool that is appropriate), and discuss safety planning and risk management strategies with staff. Safety planning reflects the woman's immediate personal circumstances, needs, and choices. Based on risk assessment, shelters will determine where elevated risk procedures to support women and dependents will be required and implemented.

3.4 Individual Support Planning

The shelter will have a written policy and procedure for shelter staff to provide ongoing support for women and dependents during their stay at the shelter. Ongoing support could include crisis intervention, emotional support, risk assessment, safety planning, and supporting women and dependents to navigate or access a variety of systems, including but not limited to justice, employment, housing supports, health, police, education, child welfare services, and traditional knowledge holders for First Nation, Métis, Inuit women.

Shelter staff will work with women and dependents to establish short and long-term priorities, and the supports required from staff and community resources. The ministry acknowledges that women and dependents may choose not to participate in this process.

Some shelters may also provide support planning for women and dependents that are not living in the shelter. If this is the case, the shelter will have a written policy that outlines their procedures.

3.5 Supports for Children

The ministry recognizes that shelters provide a continuum of services and supports for children. The shelter will have a written policy and procedure that outlines the services and supports that will be provided to children, including how children will be a part of safety planning and risk assessment. The policy will include how shelter staff will work with women to determine the appropriate supports for children, and/or the appropriate referral to services in the community, For more information on safety planning and risk assessment, see 3.3 Safety Planning and Risk Assessment.

3.6 Duty to Report

The shelter will have a written policy and procedure, requiring staff to report any suspicion that a child is or may be in need of protection to the local children's aid society (CAS). The policy must also require staff to document the report and the information on which the report is based. The policy will meet all requirements in the Child and Family Services Act, respecting reporting protection concerns. The policy will also require the shelter to inform each woman upon intake that staff may be required to make a report in accordance with requirements under the Child and Family Services Act

Each shelter will be a signatory to the local CAS/ VAW collaboration agreement and have linkages to the local collaboration committee.

For more information on the Child and Family Services Act: Child and Family Services Act

For more information on the duty to report, please visit the Ministry of Children and Youth Services website: Reporting child abuse and neglect

3.7 French Language Services

The shelter will have a written policy and procedure that describes how the shelter will comply with the French Language Services Act, if applicable. If the act is applicable, the written policy will include how the agency will support Francophone women and dependents to receive services in their language of choice. If Francophone services are not available within the shelter, the written policy will outline how women will receive referrals and information about available Francophone services.

3.8 Supports for First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Women

Shelters will have a written policy and procedure that outlines the supports that will be provided to First Nation, Métis, and Inuit women and dependents accessing shelter services. The written policy and procedure will include respect for women and dependents' language of choice, the importance of connecting women and dependents with traditional knowledge holders, providing a space for traditional practices, and providing information and referrals about culturally appropriate services, as requested by the women and dependents. Shelters are encouraged to work collaboratively with Indigenous and First Nation communities, as well as urban Aboriginal organizations to establish effective and responsive polices, services and supports for First Nation, Métis, and Inuit women and dependents.

4. Staff and Volunteers

4.1 Staff Orientation

The shelter will have a written policy that outlines the orientation procedure for all its new employees and volunteers. Where applicable all employees, volunteers, and students are required to be familiar with the shelter's policies and procedures, including the ministry's VAW shelter standards.

4.2 Safety for Staff and Volunteers

The shelter will have a written policy and procedure on how to support the safety and well-being of staff, volunteers, in the shelter, consistent with the Occupational Health and Safety Act.In the case of a security issue or concern with a resident, the written policy will outline the procedures that will be in place, such as the availability of on-call staff and local emergency services.

5. Health and Safety

5.1 Adherence to Laws

All shelters will comply with any and all applicable federal, provincial and municipal laws, statutes, regulations and orders.

5.2 Health and Safety

The shelter will develop, implement, and regularly review their health and safety policies and procedures to promote the health, safety, and wellness of women and dependents using the shelter, employees and volunteers. The following health considerations will be included in written policies and procedures:

General Health and Safety

  • Women and dependents are safe and secure within the facility and entrances are secured against unwanted entry.
  • Emergency exits will be equipped with an alarm to alert staff/volunteers of unauthorized comings and goings.
  • A pest management program is in place that includes prevention of pest infestation and working closely with a licensed pest control operator, if needed.

Infectious Diseases and Outbreaks

The shelter will have a written policy outlining how and when they will report on increased rates of illness, when to contact the local public health unit, how they will support any public health unit investigation, and how they will support ill residents to receive care, when required.

For a full listing of local public health units in Ontario, visit: Public Health Units

5.3 First Aid and Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)

In accordance with Regulation 1101 made under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, the shelter will have a written policy that outlines that at least one staff person certified in Standard First Aid and CPR is on duty at all times in the shelter.

5.4 Food Safety

The shelter will have a written policy that outlines how employees, women and dependents, and volunteers adhere to food safety requirements as outlined in the Ontario Food Premises Regulation (O. Reg. 562). This includes requirements related to food handling during food preparation, processing, packaging, service, storage, and transportation.

5.5 Fire Safety and Emergency Preparedness

The shelter will have a written policy that outlines that the shelter complies with an emergency and/or fire evacuation plan. All employees and volunteers will be familiar with the plan, and will make women and dependents aware upon admission to the shelter, when appropriate. Diagrams of the evacuation plan will be posted in all sleeping and communal areas.

The shelter will comply with the Ontario Fire Code. Fire extinguishers and smoke alarms are regularly serviced and available in areas where services are provided.

5.6 Safety for Children

The shelter will have a written policy on the procedures to monitor that children's equipment is age appropriate and well-maintained. Cribs, appropriate bedding, high chairs, toys, and playpens should conform to specifications approved by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). Cribs must be provided for all children under two years of age, as per appropriate safety standards in accordance with CSA.

5.7 Resident Medication

The shelter will have a written policy that all prescribed and over-the-counter medications are kept in locked storage.

5.8 Serious Occurrences

The shelter will have a written policy that complies with the ministry's guidelines and requirements for serious occurrence reporting (SOR).

5.9 Continuity of Service Plans

The shelter will have a written policy and procedure outlining the continuity of service plan, which includes arrangements to provide continuous delivery of critical services and identification of necessary resources to support ongoing services.

6. Service Monitoring and Evaluation

6.1 MCSS VAW Client Satisfaction Survey

The shelter will provide women and dependents with opportunities to provide feedback on whether they were satisfied with the services and supports they received. The shelter will have a written policy and procedure for all women to be offered an opportunity to complete the MCSS VAW Client Satisfaction Survey, where appropriate.

Shelters should be prepared to regularly report on the response rate for the MCSS VAW Client Satisfaction Survey to the ministry, and articulate a strategy to address low response rates, if required.

6.2 Program Review and Evaluation

The shelter will have a written policy on ongoing program evaluation, with a specified time and schedule to reflect the changing needs of women and dependents. Program evaluations should look at the shelter's program performance, quality, efficiency, client outcomes, and the effectiveness of the services provided. The policy should note mechanisms to make changes to programs, according to program evaluation results, which could include sharing documentation that the evaluation results were discussed with the Board of Directors.

The program evaluation should include a review of compliance with internal written policies.

6.3 Ministry Monitoring and Oversight

As part of each transfer-payment agreement and service contract, the ministry can request the following information at any time to monitor the performance of any or all VAW agencies:

  • Transfer Payment Risk Assessment results
  • Program Evaluations
  • Serious Occurrence Reporting Results
  • Governance and operational policies and procedures
  • Minutes from the annual general meeting

Upon review, the ministry may make recommendations and follow-up as required. If required the Ministry can undertake a program review of the agency to assess the situation and verify whether there is any misappropriation of ministry funds or if there is a threat to the health, safety and well-being of persons receiving services and supports from the VAW shelter.