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OPINION | Monday Morning at 9 a.m.: My Experience Working at the Domestic Violence Hotline

by Charlotte Jarvis


I’m back working on the domestic violence (DV) hotlines after a couple of years, and let me tell you what’s different this time. A lot. 

Most importantly — CAP Referrals. Now, to quickly try to bring you up to date, CAP stands for Community Advocacy Program. So when someone’s going through DV, you might think to yourself, “This person needs support.” What do they need? An advocate. An advocate is someone who will walk them through the process of, well, a lot. 

In 2015 I went through DV, just like you might’ve thought, and a friend of mine said, “You need an advocate.” “A what?” I wondered as I dialed the number to the Family Justice Center of Alameda County in Oakland, California. And before I knew it, I was heading in for an intake. My advocate, bless her heart, helped me file a restraining order and break my lease without penalty, attended court with me, helped me plan my escape, and keeps in touch with me still today.  

Survivors might have a range of needs including relocation funds, first/last/deposits, help with medical debt incurred from abuse, funds to help with financial abuse, legal advocacy, therapy, support groups, etc. Back when I ran Catherine Booth House,  here’s what we did when we sent referrals — we gave the survivor a phone number. That’s all. Maybe we made a three-way call or called on their behalf to make things easier. Excluding transitional housing applications and a few select programs (for clothing or furniture), there was no sort of limitation on how many we could send. We had a client, they had a need, we sent them to whatever agency could help with that. And generally speaking, they got help. 

So flash forward — COVID times and the Great Resignation — DV services currently looks like this:  

Monday morning I rolled out of bed and hopped onto the DV Hotline. I opened an Excel spreadsheet to check the referrals for the week. Each local DV agency updates us on how many new clients (referrals) we can send weekly, and, due to staffing issues and long waitlists, they will contact them accordingly. So everyone, no matter what they need, is waiting in the same line as the next. 

The phone rings, “DVHopeline,” I answer in my empathetic customer-service-toned voice, and on the other end is a survivor looking for support groups. She didn’t need housing, she didn’t need funds, she already had a therapist, she was just looking to join a local support group. She’d called the week before but had decided to wait since the referrals for the week were running low and had been told to call back Monday morning at 9:00 a.m., when the referrals re-up. I go check the chart and look for the DV agency in her area, and there sitting in the tiny little Excel box is the number 1. 

ONE referral. 

Meaning there is one referral to this DV agency for the entire week. 

In its first quarter, the new and improved DVHopeline took 3,200 calls. Meaning about 266 calls weekly. Two hundred and sixty-six people a week seeking shelter, support groups, and financial assistance, and this week in Seattle proper, we had one referral. 

The survivor I was speaking to had already waited a week, and knowing that the turnaround could be weeks to months, I sent the referral in. And I did this knowing exactly what the rest of my week would look like.

In the years I’ve been in the field, we’d regularly get calls from survivors fleeing their states and making their way up to Washington. Of course there’s significant practicality in fleeing your state (avoiding tracking and stalking) but it seemed like the word was out — Washington was where you should be. Almost like we were some sort of social service mecca, like our streets were paved with golden agencies. Washington was, after all, “leading the nation in DV services” as all our programs loved to tout. And to their credit, it was true! As a survivor who both works in and has received services from agencies in a number of states, I can confidently say, back in 2015, Washington certainly had more than any other state I’d seen.  

Today, when people call from out of state, I’m just shy of begging them not to come. Our programs are flooded. Housing in Seattle is virtually unaffordable unless you work in tech. Things are so bad a supervisor recently advised I begin referring callers to out-of-state programs for support groups. 

And like a mother I spoke to recently, when I responded to her question of how long it might be until her daughter heard back from an advocate: “Four to six weeks?” she cried, “She could be dead by then.” And the awful thing is she’s right. In four to six weeks it could be too late for so many people.  

This is not due to a lack of caring. In the same way a survivor doesn’t fall in love with a monster, I can’t imagine what kind of person would go into a field of work with horribly low wages, incredibly high stress, and an abundance of vicarious trauma, if they didn’t at some point have hopes and dreams of helping people. Advocates can’t get back to them, because there is almost no staff. The field is drowning, and we need funders to throw us a life raft.

And so I knew, for the rest of my week, every time someone called, I’d be saying the same thing, “Call back Monday morning at 9:00 a.m.,” hoping they could snag a spot, and hoping they’d hear back in four to six weeks.


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📸 Featured Image: Photo by chainarong06/Shutterstock.com

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