I Need Help: Making Your First Hotline Call

By Amy Watson

The decision for a victim to call a helpline may sound like a natural decision for a domestic violence survivor to make, but if you were to ask a survivor they may give you a multitude of reasons they won’t or have never called a helpline.  

Perhaps one of the reasons victims don’t call helplines is because there isn’t a clear understanding of the role helplines play in the cycle of abuse.  In order to get a better understanding of the role of helplines for victims of domestic violence, we went to the source. Rebecca* worked for a domestic violence helpline for many years.  Here she shares her experiences with us in hopes that everyone will have a better understanding of the role of helplines.

Amy Watson:  What is the primary goal of a helpline?

Rebecca: To act as triage, be a first line of defense, safe place for victims to feel heard and gain hope.

This is an important delineation, as the role of a helpline is not long-term but rather serves as an emergent resource, meant to save life and limb.  Many victims get frustrated with helplines because they cannot provide resources needed by many survivors to flourish rather than just survive. The role of the helpline is to help with immediate needs or connect survivors with long-term resources.  Good counselors on the other end of the line also provide hope and strength that victims need to follow steps to flee the situation.

A.W.:  What can the counselor accomplish when a survivor calls the helpline?

R.: Listen! And then listen again! Often the victim is not ready to make a change, so sensitivity to that is necessary.  Saying things like “when you are ready ” gives them the power. They don’t need someone else telling them what they have to do. Ask about their support system; suggest ways to facilitate a support system if there is none. (I often suggest a place of worship). Give local referrals and stay educated.

Many victims truly hope this is what they get when they call into helplines.  Many times victims aren’t ready to make a change. The burden lies on the chest of the helpline counselor to ascertain the level of danger.  Good counselors, like Rebecca, understand that victims can’t be pushed to leave, and if a helpline counselor isn’t careful about this, the victim will most certainly not reach out again.

A.W.: What can’t the counselor accomplish when a victim calls?

R.:  The counselor can’t force [the survivor] to make a change. The victim has to be ready. You can’t make their decision for them.

Any survivor of domestic violence would agree. If the counselor begins to act like judge and jury, not only will the survivor not leave but also they will not call a helpline again.  I would add here that helplines also can’t help with 911 situations (victims should call 911), and they often cannot provide for ongoing needs. However, they can provide shelter and other information, as well as connect with local law enforcement.

A.W.:  I know you had great relationships with the shelters and even local law enforcement, tell me how that helped you support domestic violence callers.

R.:  The more I knew about the referrals I was giving, the better. It’s fantastic if the counselor can tour the facilities that are available, get to know the staff, etc. This builds rapport and, as a counselor, trusting each other is the key.  I always felt good about the shelter referrals and enjoyed the relationship with the staff at the shelters. I found this helpful when I needed an emergency placement.

Obviously, Rebecca understood the importance of building relationships with shelter staff and she was often able to make placements that nobody else could thanks to this relationship.

A.W.: What was the most frustrating part of the job? 

R.: Patience and most often not knowing the end result of my efforts.

Rebecca’s answer to this question sheds some light on just how difficult the job of a helpline counselor can be.  They are truly unsung heroes and often not paid.

BTS would like to thank Rebecca for helping us understand the role of the helpline.  It is important for victims to understand that a helpline is often the first step in what is, unfortunately, a series of steps to flee a violent situation.  But helplines are important and when you find a good one, can be part of your healing journey.

*Name change

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.

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