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A new domestic violence prevention hotline — for abusers

Massachusetts is the first state in the nation to offer such a service. Proof that it’s needed? Calls are coming in from around the country — and the world.

Since opening a little over a year ago, A Call for Change has received 450 calls — vastly outpacing the initial 50-call target.Pcess609/Adobe

Do you experience aggressive anger? Do you lash out at your partner and strike them? Does your partner fear you? Are you hurting someone you love?

There’s a free, anonymous hotline that can help.

A Call for Change, 877-898-3411, launched in Massachusetts a little over a year ago, is the nation’s first free and confidential helpline for men and women who feel driven to harm their partner.

It is just one of the measures the state is implementing to stop domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, before it begins.

Colombia, Australia, and the United Kingdom have already taken this preemptive approach.

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JAC Patrissi, a co-founder of A Call for Change, worked closely with counterparts in the UK and Australia for guidance.

“Some community advocates in Massachusetts thought it wasn’t necessary, while others believed abusers would call to receive absolution and continue abusing,” Patrissi says. She credits Massachusetts’ Division of Sexual and Domestic Violence Prevention for being willing to help launch this resource.

Since opening, the hotline has received 450 calls — vastly outpacing the initial 50-call target.

Abusers, Patrissi says, will call and say things like: “I love my wife very much, yet I can’t control my actions. I want to stop harming her and change.” Or: “I have sat with this feeling for a very long time. The harm done to my wife causes me a great amount of shame.” Or: “I feel bad after I harm my partner.”

On average, Patrissi says, most calls last about an hour. Establishing the right balance of accountability and understanding with callers is essential. “This helpline is about navigating a difficult conversation with compassion and humility as the abuser becomes self-aware of the harm they have done,” says Michelle Harris, a coordinator and A Call for Change responder. About 70 percent of calls are from people who acknowledge their abusive actions — including repeat callers. The rest are from survivors, professionals, and concerned family or friends.

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Although the line was intended as a resource for Massachusetts residents, abusers from as far away as France, Brazil, and Zimbabwe are finding the hotline’s number online and calling. Forty percent of calls last quarter were from out of state. Ten states have since approached A Call for Change to inquire about setting up a helpline of their own. Vermont and Wisconsin will launch one this year.

Promoting the helpline to rural residents, to people of color, and through the school system is a priority, Harris says, because people in these groups are often the least likely to report abuse or seek help.

According to a National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey from 2017, as many as 111 million US adults have experienced some form of sexual or physical violence or stalking. Toni Troop, director of communications and development at Jane Doe Inc., a coalition focused on sexual and domestic violence, says Massachusetts stands out for its investments in awareness and prevention services. In 2019, Massachusetts also launched RESPECTfully, a statewide program to address sexual assault and violence among middle and high schoolers, and a campaign to promote healthy relationships. During the COVID-19 pandemic, former governor Charlie Baker increased the state’s annual funding for such services from $38 million to $50 million.

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A similar service in Colombia, the Calm Line, opened in 2020. As of November, it had received 12,000 calls, according to Henry Murrain Knudson, undersecretary for Citizen Culture and Knowledge Management.

Australia’s Men’s Referral Service, open since 1993, received 7,644 calls in 2021. In 2022, 48 percent more men sought support via the line’s webchat service than in the previous year, suggesting that men who abuse are seeking alternative ways to access professional help.

Last year, the United Kingdom’s Respect Phoneline, established in 2010, received 7,385 calls, 2,344 emails, 2,084 webchats, and 53,891 website visits. Calls to the helpline doubled during the pandemic and have stayed at that level, says Emma Dixon, communications manager at Respect. Dixon says the UK’s ongoing cost-of-living crisis has introduced new pressures and tensions into domestic relationships. “While we don’t know how a person behaves following the phone call,” Dixon says, “we can confidently say those who called have made the first step towards meaningful change.”

Dana Ramos holds a master’s degree in journalism from Harvard and a master’s in political science from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.