For the last three years, she has answered phones at Safe Horizon, a nonprofit organization that runs a 24-hour domestic violence hotline in the New York City area. The end of each call can mean troubling uncertainty.
Canon-Velazquez sometimes refers callers to shelters, not knowing if the shelters can or will accept them. Other times, she’ll explain the legal options a caller may have to deal with an abuser—and have no idea if the caller will actually walk into a police station or courthouse. Above all, she is acutely aware that no matter what support or advice she provides, her callers may simply remain in a dangerous situation. And that, she says, is “a very scary thought.”
Across the United States, domestic violence hotlines like Safe Horizon receive more than 20,000 calls a day. Given that a recent Centers for Disease Control study found that one in four women deal with severe domestic violence in their lifetime, their phone work is vital—and can be nearly nonstop.
“I always tell our advocates, ‘You’re meeting this person at a critical point in [his or her] life,’”says Christine Tabone, the director of Safe Horizon’s hotline. “You don’t reach for the phone for no good reason.” And Safe Horizon knows it’s not easy to make that call: the nonprofit began as a pilot program in 1975 to support crime witnesses who felt intimidated or threatened to testify. Even now, nearly half of domestic abuse cases go unreported to authorities. For victims, dialing an anonymous hotline can feel safer than calling the police or visiting a hospital. “We get calls all the time where the client says, ‘Nobody knows,’” says Tabone.
ON AN AVERAGE DAY, Canon-Velazquez and her colleagues may respond to as many as 300 calls, each a literal cry for help. Working out of an unremarkable-looking room that could be mistaken for a telemarketing or information technology office—picture a low ceiling, cubicle-like desk partitions, headsets, and hushed voices—Safe Horizon’s advocates first and foremost have to remain calm and collected, regardless of what they’re hearing from the other end of the line. They also have to work quickly. Callers often have limited safe time to talk, which means an advocate such as Mary Catherine Benge could have as little as 10 minutes to assess an individual situation and viable options. Doing so is hardly straightforward: every caller has unique needs, and Safe Horizon refers to them as the “experts in their own situations.”
Rather than making decisions, advocates act as guides, trying to restore to callers the sense of control that abusers have taken from them. Abusers often lead with physical violence, but they also use less visible tactics to exert power over their victims, like isolating them from family and friends or restricting their access to money. “Acknowledging the complexities of people’s lives is sometimes lost when people are talking about domestic violence,” says Benge. “They automatically go to the physical aspect, which is valid in its own sense, but there are all these different ways that an abuser can have power and control over your everyday life.”
There are other misconceptions about domestic violence, as well, which may partly be a problem of public relations. The stigma surrounding abuse cases often shames victims into not coming forward and sharing their stories. As a result, the wider world might only learn about domestic violence through things like high-profile celebrity cases and highway billboards, which can be misleadingly narrow in their framing of the issue. “When I say ‘domestic violence,’ you probably think of a heterosexual couple in a suburban house, where the man is the perpetrator and the woman has bruises,” Tabone says. “That’s valid, but it’s not always the case.”
Those misconceptions are so deeply ingrained that callers to domestic violence hotlines seldom ask about concrete resources that can help them at the beginning of their conversations. Instead, they frequently question whether or not their experiences even qualify as abuse. For advocates, validating a caller’s experience is as important as providing options for action: Research shows that having social support helps domestic abuse survivors recover more quickly.
Still, as Tabone says, “We all have more than one problem.” That truism may resonate even more deeply with victims of domestic violence, who are more likely to be people of color, LGBT-identifying, and living in poverty. They might need childcare, or have a job they can’t afford to leave: 98 percent of domestic violence cases include financial abuse, which can take decades to recover from. Many victims need counseling for the effects of longstanding trauma. Canon-Velazquez, who also works with Spanish-speaking callers, says immigration status is a common concern.
TO BETTER DEAL WITH THIS COMPLEXITY, domestic violence programs are widening their scopes. Safe Horizon’s Domestic Violence Law Project supports survivors through orders of protection, divorce, and child custody. Allstate Foundation’s Purple Purse Foundation helps survivors regain control of their finances, a vital step toward independence and long term security. In a national survey by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), more than half of U.S. domestic violence programs offered individual and family support, emergency shelter, transportation, legal aid, and educational resources to more than 70,000 survivors.
But more resources are needed. According to the NNEDV, approximately 65 percent of homeless women are abuse survivors, and housing made up two-thirds of all victim requests that couldn’t be met. (Tabone says that shelter is the leading issue for Safe Horizon callers, too.) In addition, more than 1,200 staff positions at domestic-violence programs across the country were eliminated in the past year—61 percent of which provided direct resources such as shelter, legal aid, and yes, hotlines.
Tabone says Safe Horizon needs more funding, and more advocates; in the meantime, she pitches in on answering phone calls. The work remains difficult, and so does hanging up: after particularly tough calls, Canon-Velazquez decompresses outside, on the steps of a nearby building. It also remains crucial. During a recent week, Benge was able to connect the majority of her callers to possible shelter space—a rarity, she says, and particularly hard in a crowded city like New York. “That people are able to have this strength and hope for the future,” she says, “it makes me want to continue to be there for them.”
All the while, at Safe Horizon and call centers across the country, the phones keep ringing.