Britain’s Respect Hotline for Abusers May Help Stop Domestic Violence
The man says his wife will accuse him of walking away. This a common refrain among the callers.
“Let me stop you there,” Sharon says. “You need to inform your partner and son that this is a strategy you’re going to use, so from now on, if conflict is arising, you’re going to practice this ‘time out’ and this is what it looks like, so they are forewarned about strategies you’ll be using.”
He says his wife will still accuse him of abandoning her, but Sharon pushes back. “If you say to your wife: ‘I want to help, but in the moment I’m struggling and I don’t want a situation that gets abusive, and I want your support, but in the meantime if I feel a moment of anger, I want you to know what I’m doing with this strategy.’ Maybe what she sees in the moment is that you don’t want to help her, but this is a different message, and you want to have that discussion with your family beforehand.”
Later,I talked to Sharon about her time on the help line. She said she often gets calls from men who have returned home to find that their partner and children have fled to a shelter. The men may have been served with a restraining order. It’s a side of the story we rarely see: What happens in the empty house when a victim has fled with the children and the abuser arrives home? This scenario is perhaps where the help line is crucial as a crisis intervention. For perpetrators of violence, coming home to an empty house can ignite a stress response, the fight-or-flight mode, and abusers often go into fight mode. It’s a fragile, critical moment that can mean life or death for a victim. Risk of homicide for victims of domestic violence increases more than fivefold in the first year after they’ve left a highly controlling abuser, according to Jacquelyn Campbell, one of the most renowned domestic violence researchers in the United States. The point is to disrupt a moment of escalation.
Sharon will try to reframe this moment as a “time out” for callers. “We say: ‘Let’s look at the positives. This gives you some time to say OK, slow it down.’” It’s a chance to take time to think, she’ll tell them. “If you don’t use this opportunity to explore what’s next and what you can do better, the consequences will be more severe. You will lose more.’” Sharon said it’s important to get them to name their behavior, and often she’ll ask them to consider whether such behavior is unacceptable. She gives them concrete tasks to fulfill during their “time out,” like calling their doctor to explore medication or doing exercises from the Respect website. For many, perpetrator intervention programs will come next. She tries not to end a call without a list of concrete steps that someone should take to begin the process of change.
The United States’ response to violence has been fundamentally shaped by the myth that a violent person will not reach out for help. It’s part of the reason we rely so heavily on the criminal justice system and court-mandated interventions; it’s why we put so much of the impetus for change on victims, who are asked to disrupt their lives and the lives of their children to move into shelters, which are, at best, a temporary fix.
But Covid is challenging that myth. In the early months of the pandemic, when courts were closed, many programs either shut down or went online. A number of programs found that probation and parole officers were unable to adequately supervise attendance and yet, participants still showed up. Groups across the country reported high rates of attendance. Men and women joined from their bedrooms, from laundry rooms, from their cars. “For me, that is breaking a fundamental paradigm in this country that men will not ask for help voluntarily, or that men will not go to these groups voluntarily,” Mr. Areán told me. “Many of these men are desperate for support.”
In their new book “The Violence Project,” Jillian Peterson, a psychologist, and James Densley, a sociologist, write that 86 percent of mass shooters under the age of 21 will signal their plans, will reach out to someone beforehand — a friend, a teacher, a family member. “But we must not lose sight of the fact that in the vast majority of cases, any threat is really just a cry for help, evidence of an underlying personal crisis,” they write.