First-in-the-nation hotline seeks to help abusers
Aims to stop domestic violence by changing harmful behavior
MASSACHUSETTS HAS numerous hotlines and resources for people who have been abused by their intimate partners. But if an abuser wants to change his behavior, who can he call for help?
A new helpline being launched as a pilot program by organizers in Western Massachusetts aims to be the first helpline in the United States for people who do harm – and the family members and friends who want to help them change.
“We shouldn’t just be asking victims and survivors to solve this,” said Monica Moran, who manages domestic violence prevention projects for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and is one of the helpline’s coordinators. “It became more crystal clear during the pandemic for many of us. We can’t just tell people to stop (abusing) and have nothing for them.”
Moran said over the years she has taught domestic violence prevention in schools, “I’ve had more than one student come to me after and say I think I’m going to do something to my partner, I’m worried I’m going to hurt them… What should I do?” Moran said. “I’ve never had anywhere to send them.”
“Many people have someone they love and care about who’s being abusive, and they don’t say anything because they don’t know what to say, or they don’t know how to do it safely,” Moran said. “Unfortunately, that silence is misread as support.”
While the helpline has only gotten a small number of calls so far, the organizers hope it will expand once more people know about it, and if they can build partnerships with community organizations, schools, or the courts.
While 10 to 10 is the first such hotline in the country, there are some models internationally. The United Kingdom has the Respect Phoneline, which provides phone and email support to people who perpetrate violence. Australia has the Men’s Referral Service, funded by the Australian government, which accepts phone calls from men who use violence and also follows up on police calls related to domestic violence. In Canada, a 24-hour pilot hotline for abusive men was launched in Nova Scotia in September. (The National Domestic Violence Hotline in the US can provide support for abusive partners, but it primarily serves victims and survivors.)
JAC Patrissi, founder of the nonprofit social justice organization Growing a New Heart and one of the helpline’s founders, said her work dealing with both survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence made her realize that society is asking a lot of survivors – urging them to develop safety plans or enter a shelter. But she said more needs to be done. “We’re not doing enough on the interrupting and prevention side of stopping it in the first place,” she said.
Both the hotlines in the United Kingdom and Australia reported that they saw increased call volume during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moran and Patrissi said COVID had an impact in the United States as well, with many victims having a harder time leaving an abusive partner. Victims may have been quarantined at home with an abuser or scared to enter a shelter. Some might have been scared to call the police for fear that their partner would be taken away, contract COVID, and bring it home. The pandemic also exacerbated stress, which can trigger violent behavior.
Patrissi said the pandemic increased the need for services that can “interrupt” a pattern of violence, by changing the abuser’s behavior.
“We need something after that (program) or before that, or in between, to take a look at the process of changing the abusive values to values of equity and respect,” Patrissi said.
The philosophy of the helpline is that domestic violence stems from a belief system, and beliefs can change. People who harm others believe they are superior to their partner and if they are uncomfortable, they have a right to harm their partner. People who act safely in their relationships believe that their partner is of equal value and deserves respect, so the person has no right to harm their partner no matter how stressed or upset they are.
“When someone calls, there’s an opportunity to provide a framework of how abuse works – its root causes, the aspects of power, and control around it – and it’s an opportunity to help an individual understand the impact of violence on themselves and others,” said Jason Patrissi, an assistant chief probation officer in Hampshire Superior Court who has worked with abusive men in batterers’ groups and trains helpline responders. (Jason and JAC Patrissi are married.)
Jason Patrissi said men most often seek help when there is a life-changing event. For example, their partner might be preparing to leave because of the abuse. Some men may also recognize how awful their actions are, or the impact on their children, and want to change. Patrissi said information is often not available to explain to men how to be in a healthy relationship.
Patrissi stressed that not all abusers want to change, and there is no guarantee a man will change. It is up to the survivor and victim whether to stay in an abusive relationship or leave. But Patrissi said in some cases, the type of safety planning that men will participate in through the helpline – identifying steps to calm themselves rather than engaging in violence and building their own support network – may create an environment where it is safe enough for a partner to leave. Frequently, domestic violence occurs when a victim attempts to leave. Moran said these interventions may also allow an ex-wife who does leave to remain in her home without feeling physically threatened by her ex-husband.
Helpline interventions could also create a safer environment for partners who choose not to leave a relationship or who are not ready. Domestic violence victims frequently try to leave their relationship multiple times before staying away for good.
Patrissi said his mantra is so no harm. “If we’re on the phone with a perpetrator, or abuser, we just want to ensure that at the minimum they have an active safety plan and they’re not going to harm the other person,” Patrissi said.
Providers who work with victims agree that there is a need for help for perpetrators. Carmen Nieves, executive director of Alianza, a domestic violence services agency that runs a shelter and community-based programs, said domestic violence is a learned behavior, and one that can be unlearned. One question survivors often ask as they decide how to proceed in a relationship is will their partner always remain abusive. “This is that conversation that many survivors struggle with, is this person going to change, is there help for this person?” Nieves said. “And I feel as a domestic violence agency, we shouldn’t be answering that. Someone else should be answering that.”
Nieves, who serves on the helpline’s advisory board, said she hopes the helpline can give abusers self-awareness of their behavior and what it takes to change. While it will not replace the criminal justice system, she views it as “another tool to use in holding people accountable and offering resources.”Hema Sarang-Sieminski, policy director for Jane Doe Inc, a coalition of groups that address domestic violence, said it is clear that the criminal justice system itself is inadequate for addressing domestic violence, since most domestic violence goes unreported for a variety of reasons. “Given that, the question becomes then what? What is out there for both survivors and those who cause harm to shore up some of those supports and stop that harm from continuing?” Sarang-Sieminski said. She said the helpline model fits with national conversations about “restorative justice” and finding solutions to community problems within the community.
“The vast majority of survivors, when you ask them what they want in terms of a response, it’s for the harm to stop and for there to be some level of accountability,” Sarang-Sieminski said. “It’s concepts like these that allow for the conversation and honest dialogue that pave the way for something like that.”