Hotlines designated for potential abusers could help address the roots of the domestic violence “shadow pandemic”—and make men step up.
“My heart just sank.” That’s how Stephanie Love-Patterson describes the moment when Illinois shut down at the start of the pandemic. “We knew then that people were being forced to shelter in place with a person who wanted to harm them—and even kill them,” Love-Patterson, the executive director of Connections for Abused Women and their Children in Chicago, told me. “But as restrictions started lifting, hotline calls increased and so did requests for emergency shelter. That continues today.”
A 32-year-old mom with two boys was one of them. Marilyn, who didn’t want to use her real name, fled physical, emotional, sexual, financial and spiritual abuse last year. The trio moved into Greenhouse Shelter, received counseling, then settled in a new apartment three months later.
But not all victims can find a safe place these days.
“It’s really difficult,” said Love-Patterson. “Victims often have to give up everything, including their sources of income—whether it’s their job or the person causing them harm. And the housing market has made it harder.”
Domestic abuse didn’t stop because of COVID-19. In fact, the outbreak exacerbated the crisis, fueling what many called the “shadow pandemic.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline started tracking contacts at the start of the pandemic and received 21,005 more reach outs from March 2020 through March 2021 (374,640 total) than it had the previous year. The hotline has already seen a 16 percent increase in January this year compared to last year.
Victims often have to give up everything, including their sources of income—whether it’s their job or the person causing them harm. And the housing market has made it harder.Stephanie Love-Patterson
“We have seen an increase in weapons being used, we are seeing victims with significant PTSD, trauma and depression and we’re seeing kids with increased needs,” said Mimi Sterling, CEO of The Family Place, which runs three emergency shelters in Texas. “The number of people has gone down but the stay is longer. The average was 45 days and is now up to 53, which means turnover is less frequent.”
Sterling and Love-Patterson both said treating the casualties of domestic abuse—whether physical, emotional, sexual or financial—won’t solve the problem. Only a comprehensive approach that helps prevent the abuse will. Problem is, there just aren’t enough resources dedicated to doing that.
“Until we really focus on offenders changing their behavior, the community problem doesn’t change,” Sterling told me. “It only changes for one person.” Both women have Batterer Intervention and Prevention Programs affiliated with their organizations—something the courts assign offenders to complete. The Family Place serviced 419 men and 80 women in the program in 2021, compared to 396 men and 81 women in 2020.
“Helping these offenders reclaim their self worth and opportunity to thrive is also important—since hurt people hurt people,” said Sterling. “Offenders and batterers have been battered themselves and not all programs believe in rehabilitation or service men at all. We have a holistic approach and know you can’t just shelter victims—you have to solve the problem long-term.”
Helping offenders reclaim their self worth and opportunity to thrive is also important—since hurt people hurt people. Offenders and batterers have been battered themselves and not all programs believe in rehabilitation or service men at all.Mimi Sterling
The largest family violence center in Texas is in the testing phase of an “anger hotline” where people can get peer coaching when in distress. Any full-fledged “Men’s Hotline” would be a first in the United States. Other countries—like the United Kingdom and Israel—already have designated call centers for male victims and potential abusers. It was a revolutionary idea that seems to be working.
“We started this 12 years ago because I thought we have to find a new way. Men will seek help if we offer services that take into consideration their difficulties,” said Malka Genachovski, an Israeli social worker, lecturer, facilitator and therapist who serves as the director of the Women’s International Zionist Organization’s (WIZO) center for preventing domestic violence. “They are afraid to be judged, that someone will report them to the police and the police will take them to prison. First, we have to change the conversation about violence and then we need to change the social outlook on it.”
The men’s hotline for victims or potential abusers started without a budget and is run by male peer volunteers, not professional social workers. Six years ago, WIZO saw the program’s promise and reached out to its office in New York for a donation that allowed for an expansion of services in Israel. The hotline is now being supported by WIZO NY.
“We saw in the past year an increase of 400 percent in callers,” Avi Mor, the therapist and counselor who runs WIZO’s Men’s Hotline, told me. “They reach out right before an angry outburst or call to talk about a past relationship. They ask: Is this abuse or not abuse? They want to understand the situation and get guidance. “
In one case, a 22-year-old man called the hotline and asked for advice on how to navigate his current breakup. He often followed his girlfriend around and called her constantly to check up on her whereabouts. Then, his girlfriend wanted to break up, and he was nervous to walk into the apartment and lose his temper with her. Through the hotline intervention, the caller began to successfully understand that his actions are unacceptable and he gained tools and skills on how to help himself step out of these abusive tendencies.
They reach out right before an angry outburst or call to talk about a past relationship. They ask: Is this abuse or not abuse? They want to understand the situation and get guidance.Avi Mor
Mor and Genachovski say when the social conversation about domestic abuse is only about murder cases, an abuser thinks they’re “not a murderer. Then he thinks he’s not violent and it’s not his problem—so he doesn’t have to talk about it.” The hotline encourages male abuse victims and potential perpetrators, as well as family and friends, to call when they witness a potentially abusive situation.
You don’t have to tell Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in the United States, that this is a good idea. “We’re just spinning our wheels,” she told me. “I want victims to be safe first but if we don’t get to the root of what the issue is, we keep feeding the intervention.”
Glenn wants Americans to know we are still dealing with domestic abuse in epidemic proportions. And, she’s calling for more academic research plus federal money that seriously tackles this issue which affects all of us.
“When are we as a country going to find the resources to create prevention strategies that address why someone wants to hurt someone else?” she asked. “My hope is that 10 years from now we get a return on that investment. I know it’s a complex issue and it has to be supported with funding. It’s hard to get government resources without knowing what the outcome will be.”
Will the U.S. follow other countries’ lead? When I asked the Israelis what piece of advice they would give us on domestic abuse, they were quick to reply: “For sure, the United States should create a men’s hotline. It makes men step up.”
“However,” they cautioned. “It is important that initiative goes hand in hand with community work on the perception of men who are in the cycle of abuse.” This combination is key.
So America, will we do it?