A New Path to Help for Victims of Domestic Violence

The Director of a women’s shelter embraces a young survivor of sexual violence. Photo: Amnesty International/Flickr
The director of a women’s shelter embraces a young survivor of sexual violence. Photo: Amnesty International/Flickr.

Telephone hotlines staffed by advocates have long been a lifeline for victims of domestic violence. While how we communicate has changed in the digital era, high rates of domestic violence remain a widespread problem, especially among younger women.

An online chat program, launched in August in Silicon Valley, aims to make it easier for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault to find help. Rather than waiting for phone calls, SafeChatSV has trained domestic violence counselors staff waiting behind a computer screen, offering survivors another way to instantly connect to advice and services.

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, on average 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner – more than 12 million men and women over the course of a year. The non-profit Love is Respect says that among victims of intimate partner violence, 94 percent of those are ages 16 to 19, and 70 percent of those ages 20 to 24 were victimized by a current or former boyfriend or girlfriend.

“We know girls and women under the age of 25 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence,” says Tanis Crosby, CEO of the Silicon Valley YWCA. Safe Chat Silicon Valley is a collaborative effort between several non-profit organizations that help domestic abuse survivors including Asian Americans for Community Involvement, Maitri, Community Solutions and the YWCA.

“This is a generation that relies heavily on phones, but prefers texting to talking,” Crosby says. “They may not feel comfortable discussing abusive situations over the phone, or be in a place where they can safely discuss their concerns.”

A 2014 Gallup Poll found that text messages now outrank phone calls among Millennials, a trend that is making many traditional crisis hotlines rethink their strategy. The Millennial generation (which Pew Research identifies as those between the ages of 18-34 as of 2015), also prefers using instant messaging and social media to communicate.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez says the idea for the project came from a domestic abuse advocate who called her office seeking an easier way for survivors to get real-time responses to their questions.

“Reaching out for help can be hard for domestic abuse survivors,” Chavez says. “SafeChatSV offers the chance to connect with a trained advocate in a confidential online chat.”

With SafeChatSV, survivors can reach a trained domestic violence advocate Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, between the hours of 10 a.m.-4 p.m. The interface of the chat system looks like any other website, which protects user privacy, and has an escape button at the top of the website, so users can exit the chat quickly if they feel unsafe.

Although SafeChatSV is the first program of its kind in California, similar programs are offered in other parts of the United States. The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers a chat option as part of their services, and says it’s the number one way that survivors reach out, followed by phone and then text.

Online chats are gaining in popularity with non-profits including the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and Planned Parenthood all offering chat options, there continues to be a need for more crisis hotlines to adopt this new format. According to IMAlive.org, an online suicide prevention network, more than 30 percent of people who call a crisis hotline hang up as soon as they hear a voice. An online chat format allows survivors to reach out in a greater variety of situations – whether there are others in close proximity, or they simply feel uncomfortable verbalizing the details of their trauma. An online chat also can alleviate a survivor’s concerns about privacy that may come with texting or talking on the phone where they might be overheard.

When a survivor logs on to SafeChatSV, they are connected to a domestic violence advocate and asked a series of questions to determine if they are seeking information on services, or if they are in a crisis situation, says Josephine Suh of Asian Americans for Community Involvement. Counselors can answer questions, offer support, and provide information about local shelters, legal advocacy and counseling.

Having organizations such as AACI and Maitri, both Bay Area non-profits that assist Asian-Americans survivors of domestic violence, involved in SafeChatSV is also important given that rates of domestic violence in the Asian community are two to three times higher than any other group.

The Asian Pacific Islander Institution on Domestic Violence says 41 to 61 percent of all Asian women have experienced physical and or sexual violence from an intimate partner at least once in their lives. Yet despite the prevalence of domestic violence in the Asian community, a 2012 study published in the journal Violence Against Women found that Asian-American domestic violence survivors rarely seek care from health providers or report it to law enforcement. The study attributes this to a combination of cultural barriers that discourage victims from seeking help and lack of culturally sensitive services.

Within the first few weeks of its inception, Crosby says 90 people had used SafeChatSV. Posters throughout YWCA promote the program and offer tear off tabs with the website’s information. “We’ve found the tabs are removed shortly after we put up the posters,” Crosby says, “which tells us people are interested in and using the service.”

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