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Western Massachusetts helpline a Call for Change seeks to end intimate partner violence where it starts—with the people causing the harm

PITTSFIELD — A year ago, a man dialed the Call for Change Helpline, a confidential line to prevent domestic violence. “I don’t want to keep harming my wife,” he told the responder.

Michelle Harris listened as he described his circumstances. He was illiterate, relied on subsistence farming and did not have easy access to a nearby town.

Harris, herself a domestic violence survivor, acknowledged that as a Black woman living in a city, she couldn’t relate to him. But she could help.

“Even through all those challenges that you experience daily, you still have an opportunity to become [a] safe [partner],” Harris recalled telling the man.

By the end of the hourlong call, he asked if he could call back. Harris said he could.

Jac Patrissi, a domestic violence survivor and licensed therapist, co-founded A Call for Change helpline in April 2021 together with the Behavioral Health Network and a collective called Growing a New Heart. It is available from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. in over 100 languages and a 711 relay for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Responders are based in Western Massachusetts, but for safety reasons Patrissi declined to share the exact location. Locally, the Elizabeth Freeman Center in Pittsfield helps by distributing flyers and giving the helpline’s information to therapists.

Designed and funded for Western Massachusetts, the service has been taking calls from the entire country.

Patrissi was told nobody would call. During the first year, the helpline got 250 calls. From April to November of this year, it received 400 calls. At first, only about 20 percent of the callers said they had harmed their partner, according to Patrissi.

Most callers were survivors, community members and the occasional person who couldn’t find their cat. Now, about 80 percent of the callers are people causing harm. They have expanded their reach through word of mouth, social media, press, billboards and individuals and organizations involved with addressing domestic violence.

Some condemned the initiative on moral grounds, describing it as a confessional line where abusive people would confess and get absolved.

Jenn Goewey, director of programs at the Elizabeth Freeman Center, says she understands why some professionals working with survivors of domestic violence might resist an approach that centers on abusive people. “We definitely come into this field where we’re very specific purpose, right? We want to work with survivors,” she said.

Goewey was skeptical. But after a Call for Change team shared examples of real phone conversations, she is now hopeful. “They seemed highly thoughtful and trained,” she said. “I think that any intervention that is in place to try to disrupt violence and can assist someone who uses abusive tactics to stop harming their partner is a really positive thing.”

Patrissi said the helpline paired compassion with accountability. “We have to learn how to be like, ‘Oh, that’s hard for you’. And then tell them: ‘But you did this to yourself,’” said Patrissi.

Harris was first skeptical. Working in survivor shelters, she learned to see abusers as enemies who cannot change. During the 40-hour training for responders, she learned about abusive values and how everyone can hold some abusive values and struggle to balance compassion and accountability.

“A month later, I got some feedback that my dialogues with people have been received in a better way, and basically improved some of my personal relationships,” she said.

Since the 1980s, the United States’ approach toward domestic violence focused on criminalization and intervention, rather than prevention. In 1994, Congress passed the first iteration of the Violence Against Women Act. Some studies have shown that these approaches don’t work.

Patrissi says the dominant approach asks too much from survivors. “Our services on the survivor side are set up with the assumption they’ll leave their partner and then we’ll take care of them. And most survivors aren’t leaving their partners. They don’t get the help they need,” she said.

Locally, Goewey said the Elizabeth Freeman Center meets survivors where they are, not only when they get to a shelter.

More radically, Patrissi says criminalization is a way society starts replicating dominance to respond to dominance.” “We start saying ‘Stop controlling your partner, because we’re going to control you.’ We’re going to shame you out of shaming and it doesn’t work.”

Patrissi and her team created the helpline, taking inspiration from similar helplines across the world, the oldest being in the United Kingdom since 2004 and receives 6,000 calls a year.

But unlike helplines in other countries, A Call for Change doesn’t work with the police. Patrissi said that working alongside the police works in other countries that have a lower death rate by police. People of color and LGBT+ they surveyed confirmed they would not feel safe calling if the police were to be involved.

Strategies used

The helpline has structured ways to help callers change abusive behavior. “We have 12 strategies, a set of 15 skills and nine interrupters that match where the person is [in their process of change],” she said. “If somebody has already taken accountability for what they’ve done … That’s not the same call as the person who’s like, ‘I don’t know what my partner’s problem is.’”

Patrissi and her colleagues don’t believe their method is a silver bullet. “We need many [different] interventions,” she said. Responders decline referrals from therapists or partners. It is up to people who abuse to dial the number. Patrissi says it’s the only way this approach can work, she says when people are mandated by the state to go to an intimate partner abuse education group, they often don’t engage with it. “They’re saying I didn’t do it. I don’t even know why I’m here. I don’t belong here,” she said.

One day a survivor called and asked the responder to send a short book about domestic violence to their partner, who didn’t want to talk to anyone. They declined the request. The responder declined because the model relies on active participation.

But what happens after a caller hangs up? That is hard to tell because of the helpline’s anonymous nature. Harris says there is promising evidence in the number of callers who were abusive who call back, showing they have interest in changing. From July to October 2022, 67 percent of them did.

Patrissi tells the story of a man she calls a “one of the most dangerous people you’ll ever know.”

“He’s in the criminal legal system. He has a therapist, but he has told no one [besides the helpline responders] what he did. And he doesn’t tell us and feels better about it,” she said. “I asked him, ‘Why are you calling?’ He thought for a long time and said, ‘because what I’m doing is wrong.’”

She doesn’t think he will ever be a safe partner, but sees it as proof the will to change can exist even among the worst offenders. She stresses that there are no external rewards, like sentence reductions or getting back custody, attached to contacting the helpline.

Patrissi thinks that telling the whole truth can be the starting point for change.

Aina de Lapparent Alvarez can be reached at aalvarez@berkshireeagle.com.

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