Domestic violence hotline tries to reach abusers

Solutions

(NewsNation) — Most services aimed at stopping domestic violence focus on the victim, but a hotline service in Massachusetts called 10 to 10 attempts to reach the other side: People who have or think they might hurt those close to them.

“I didn’t realize I had hurt her that much,” a man told 10 to 10 Hotline manager Michelle Harris during one of the first calls she took.

Harris said the man was sobbing so hard she could barely understand him. He said the bruises left on his partner’s neck scared him. 

“I never expected (the perpetrators) to be so vulnerable,” Harris said.

Harris believes these abusers can change — but only if they’re taught how. There are few interventions for perpetrators outside of court-mandated programs. Still, the response to their hotline took the founders by surprise.

“As soon as we launched, within a few days, we had calls not only from all around the state, but from around the country, which taught us this is such a need,” said cofounder JAC Patrissi, a trauma therapist who spent years working with people who caused harm in their relationships.

Almost half of all Americans have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. One in four women and one in seven men have been victims of severe physical violence.

The hotline — created in April 2021 — was initially intended to meet a need in rural Massachusetts where it can be much harder to access traditional domestic violence prevention. The nearest shelter might be hours away. Victims may live on the same property as their in-laws or parents, making it more difficult to leave a violent situation. 

Since many victims return to their partners, Patrissi thought, “Why not hold them accountable and work with them in stopping the harm … instead of putting all this work on the survivor?” 

‘The turning point’

Employees staff the hotline and email account from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET. Calls are limited to an hour, because it takes multiple calls over weeks or months for perpetrators to change the core belief they hold that it’s OK to dominate their partner. 

“Often when I hear it, ‘Well, I didn’t think of it that way. You’re giving me really good information I want to think on,’” Harris said.

The first way in is by helping a parent see how they are hurting their children.

“We want to encourage them to be rigorously honest with themselves, that they’re not a safe person. And that’s where the turning point is,” she said.

Since opening, Harris said 50% of the 350 calls they received were from people abusing their partners. By June of this year, that rate jumped to 74%, showing that they are reaching more of their key demographic. Hotline data shows at least 40% called back more than once.

Similar hotlines have existed for years in other countries, including Colombia, Australia and the U.K. Ten other states have already contacted Patrissi about starting similar lines. She said because calling is voluntary and anonymous, perpetrators enter the conversation less defensive. 

“If you’re voluntarily calling a helpline that’s confidential, you can say the truth without the system of control punishing you for it,” she said. “You are much more ready to engage with someone who is actually going to challenge your point of view respectfully … so you can take the perspective of somebody else — particularly the person you’re harming.”

A renewed approach

Hotline workers also try to help the victims of domestic violence by explaining what the steps are for their partner to change — empowering them to make better informed and safe decisions on whether to leave their partner. 

“There’s a process of predictable stages people go through (when trying to be less abusive),” Patrissi said. “When we describe (the process to survivors), they can pretty much accurately say, ‘Oh, my partner’s not going to do that.’ Or, ‘Oh, I see how much this is going to take.’” 

The alternative interventions to help a partner become less violent are few. The most common are called Batterer Intervention Programs. These are usually court-mandated, costly of time and money, and have limited evidence their methods work. 

In fact, there have been few conclusive studies on what it takes for an intimate partner to stop being violent. The research that does exist points to the need for perpetrators to change their thought patterns, and that treatment only works when they are ready to receive it.

Some critics of the hotline say their methods sound like the responders are colluding with abusers. Harris contends current approaches that rely on punishment don’t address how complicated and individualized it is for every member of a family to recover.

Harris and Patrissi emphasize the hotline is just one of the many interventions over years it can take to help someone grow a conscious — which is essentially how Harris and Patrissi describe this work.

“Becoming safe or reliably safe is a lifelong commitment that we would ask that person to make … because they’re going to bounce all around the process of accountability, respect, minimizing, denying,” Harris said. “Whatever hits them to actually pause before the next incident happens and call us — we want to be that interrupter.”

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