News : Domestic Violence Hotline Relies on NFL Help as Traffic Increases
Austin, TX, USA, Sept 7, 2015 -- At each end of the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s call center, brightly colored monitors give a quick summary of the calls on hold.
It’s not uncommon for that number to hit double-digits. Oftentimes, it’s a handful or more.
Very rarely is it zero.
On a recent Monday, it was barely past noon and already the Hotline had received almost 700 calls. More than 100 had gone unanswered. For the people who’d chosen to hold, the longest wait was over 21 minutes.
"Someone asked me, 'What’s your target of unanswered?’ Zero. We really need that to be zero," Katie Ray-Jones, the Hotline’s president and chief executive officer, told USA TODAY Sports. "We need enough resources where not one call is going unanswered."
It was a year ago Tuesday that that horrifying videotape of Ray Rice knocking his now-wife Janay out cold in an elevator went public. The Hotline was besieged in the days that followed, its call volume spiking 84%. With its resources already stretched thin by the federal government’s sequestration order, about half those calls went unanswered.
When the NFL, looking to stem public outrage over its long history of indifference to domestic violence, asked Ray-Jones how it could help, her answer was simple.
"Cash," she recalled saying. "We need resources to hire people."
The NFL committed $25 million to the Hotline, $5 million over each of the next five years. While that’s pocket change for a mammoth sports league with annual revenues of $10 billion and climbing, it’s been transformative for both the Hotline and its program geared toward teens and young adults, Love Is Respect.
Its budget went from $7 million to $11 million "overnight, essentially," Ray-Jones said. Most of that money went to hire advocates, the trained staff who answer the phone calls, online chats and texts that come in at all hours of the night and day, every day of the year.
In the three weeks after the NFL pulled out its checkbook, the Hotline added 30 employees. Advocates who had been part-time went full-time, and those who were relief staff got permanent jobs. Forty more people have been hired since, and all but seven of those 70 are advocates.
That may not sound like much, but the difference it’s made is.
Though the volume of contacts — phone calls, text messages or chats — for both the Hotline and Love Is Respect is up dramatically, so, too is the amount that’s been answered.
Through the first seven months of 2015, the Hotline and Love Is Respect answered 185,845 contacts, 61,106 more than they did over the same period last year. That’s an increase of 32%. Overall, the Hotline and Love Is Respect are now answering 72% of their contacts compared with 59% from the same period in 2014.
"We’re still seeing elevated contacts. Elevated website visits. Elevated chats," Ray-Jones said. "We’re not doing as many media interviews as we were last fall, but our contact volume is still staying accelerated. So it’s good in that people know we’re here. We have more awareness around our number and our resources. That’s really good."
But it’s still not enough. It never is.
Only within the last year did the Hotline have the money to hire someone who could analyze the contact volume and make recommendations on how to schedule advocates to best meet the demand.
While finding advocates who can work overnight or the weekend is always a challenge, Ray-Jones said the highest call volume actually occurs on Mondays. For Love Is Respect, afternoons and evenings bring the most amount of contacts, with Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights particularly busy.
The Hotline’s phone system is antiquated, providing only a fraction of the analytics it could. When the Hotline opened an office in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, it only had digital services because Ray-Jones said they couldn’t be sure the phone system would allow calls to roll from one office to the other.
And despite the NFL and others offering to do public service announcements promoting the Hotline, only now does the organization have one in the works, finally confident there are enough advocates to handle the traffic it will bring when it airs this fall.
"We didn’t have the resources to staff it," Ray-Jones said. "Nothing can be more heartbreaking than a woman who develops the courage finally to make the phone call and no one answers. So we’ve always been hesitant to do that."
Because while some of the calls to the Hotline are from friends and family members looking for resources and advice, most still come from women – and men – who are desperate. And in danger.
Like the woman who recently called and said she needed to get out of her house because it was so loud. After an advocate probed further, the woman admitted she was being abused and that her partner had put a knife to her throat the day before.
"We find most of the time when we ask, 'Do you think he’s capable of killing you?’ they’ll say, 'Yes, I think he’s capable of killing me,’ " Ray-Jones said. "They know the threat is real. But most women who call us feel hopeless. They don’t know what to do, don’t know where to go."
Advocates are trained to offer resources and options, not tell callers what to do. They are empathetic and supportive, not judgmental. They will stay with contacts as long as someone needs them, with some calls lasting more than two hours and chats averaging 45 minutes.
It’s important, vital work. It’s also emotionally exhausting because, as a national hotline that is confidential and anonymous, advocates have no idea what happens to callers.
There’s also, as that board reminds them, no end in sight to what they do.
"At some point, we’ve got to get the prevalence going in the other direction," Ray-Jones said. "We need people to understand this is an issue that can end. This is something we can do to stop domestic violence through education and prevention work, but we need everyone’s help to do it."
Which is why the NFL’s involvement is so significant.
It’s easy to criticize Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL for its apathy toward domestic violence and sexual assault cases in the past. Players got longer suspensions for smoking pot than they did for leaving their wives and girlfriends battered and bruised.
Even Goodell’s initial response to the Rice case was weak. A video released shortly after Rice’s arrest in February 2014 showed him dragging an unconscious Janay Rice out of an elevator, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know something very, very bad had just happened. Yet neither the league nor the Baltimore Ravens tried very hard to find out.
But say this for Goodell and the NFL: They’re trying to make amends, and their involvement is making a difference.
Three weeks after the Rice video aired, Goodell visited the Hotline, meeting with advocates and observing how they operate. He was moved to tears by what he saw and heard, Ray-Jones said, and that genuineness made an impact on the advocates as well. A football signed by Goodell remains on display in the Hotline’s conference room.
Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of operations, drops in whenever he’s in town and was at the opening of the Washington office. Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s vice president of social responsibility and the league’s main liaison with the Hotline, now sits on the organization’s Constituent Advisory Council, a group that includes representatives from domestic violence and sexual assault prevention programs throughout the country.
"We have a visible platform where we can shine a spotlight on something and use that spotlight and platform for the positive," Isaacson said. "This was something where we could help be part of the solution."
The reach of that spotlight goes beyond the Hotline being able to answer more calls. Ray-Jones said the Hotline is doing more outreach, with corporations, colleges and even high schools asking for training and information. Some of the league’s money will be used to start a hotline specifically for Native American women, who face unique challenges because of tribal laws.
While the cash is key, so, too are the partnerships the NFL has. That antiquated phone system? The Hotline will get an updated one when it moves into new offices next spring, and the NFL has already leaned on its partners for help.
"People who have resources can make a huge difference if they use them and partner in really creative ways," Rays-Jones said. "That can have a lot of impact."
Because as encouraging as it is to see the numbers on that board dwindle, they need to disappear altogether.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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About National Domestic Violence Hotline:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a 24-hour, confidential, toll-free hotline created through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in the United States.
About National Football League:
The National Football League is a professional American football league that constitutes one of the four major professional sports leagues in North America.
Published: Wednesday, September 9, 2015