National Domestic Violence Hotline Advocates Are the Unsung (and Underpaid) Heroes of the NFL Scandal

While it's not feasible that a hotline advocate will ever make even 1/20 of an NFL player's annual salary, it's imperative advocates are paid closer to a solid middle class wage.
09/23/2014 06:43 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

It's easy to dismiss the National Football League's (NFL) recent partnership with the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) as a shallow public relations attempt to repair damage done by the botched handling of recent domestic violence offenses by NFL players. But as a former advocate on the Hotline, I know all too well how desperately those funds are needed. Regardless of any cynical views on the motivation of the NFL, its multi-year, multimillion dollar commitment to NDVH will result in a much needed revenue source for the Hotline.

Call volume to the National Domestic Violence Hotline increased 84 percent in the days following the release of the video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancé in an elevator. But there has been little insight into what work is like for the hotline advocates who are actually taking those calls, and who are at the frontlines of the U.S. response to the pandemic of intimate partner violence against women. (According to the World Health Organization: "Recent global prevalence figures indicate that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime).

Hotline advocates spend 40 hours a week answering phone calls from domestic violence survivors and their friends and families, as well as from domestic violence perpetrators. The following gives a glimpse into a typical "day in the work life" of a hotline advocate I'll call Susie.*

2:45 pm. Susie arrives at work, waves at colleagues already taking calls and logs into the phone system. She sees on the Real Viewer screen projected on the wall that there are seven callers holding, so she jumps in to take her first call.

The caller is a woman named Myrtle in Ohio. She has just left her abusive husband. She has her four children with her. She wants to go to a domestic violence shelter in her area. She is calling from a payphone because she believes her husband has installed spyware on her cell phone. She is nervous because she knows her husband is driving around the neighborhood looking for her. He keeps a gun in his car and has often told her he will kill her if she tries to leave him.

Susie quickly safety plans with the caller and then asks her to hold while Susie calls shelters in the woman's area, but all of the shelters are full. After Susie calls the third shelter, she goes back on the line to find that her caller has hung up. Susie hopes the caller hung up out of frustration and not because her abuser found her and her children. Susie sends a quick Instant Message to the other advocates giving them a heads up about the caller's situation in case she calls back.

3:30pm. Susie has two minutes to fill out her caller log in the computer before her phone rings again. This time it is a woman calling from New York who is distraught because she is in the midst of a family court battle with her husband. He has been sexually abusing their children and she fears that he will gain custody of them. Susie knows from having spoken to over 20,000 callers that abused women often lose custody of their children to their abusive partners, and she wants to help her caller be as prepared as possible. Susie talks with the caller extensively about her situation and spends an hour giving the woman resources and websites. She also connects her with a counseling program in the area that works with sexually abused children.

4:30pm. Susie hangs up. She sees that there are now 10 callers waiting so she quickly takes another call. Susie's next several calls are from domestic violence victims asking to be connected with shelter programs in their area.

4:50pm. Susie then receives a call from a monolingual Spanish speaker in Colorado. Because Susie is a bilingual advocate, she talks directly to the caller in Spanish. The caller's husband is a U.S. citizen who has been abusing her physically, verbally, sexually and financially. He tells her that if she leaves him he will call Immigration and have her deported. Susie talks to the caller about the Violence Against Women Act, which grants protections to abused immigrants married to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. She also talks to the caller about the dynamics of domestic violence, which are often about power and control, and finally she connects the caller with a non-profit program that provides legal remedies for immigrant survivors of domestic violence.

5:30pm. Susie's next caller is a teenage girl living in Clearwater, FL who says her boyfriend has been making her have sex with his friends for money. Susie explains to the caller that this is a form of both domestic violence, and -- because the caller is under 18 years old -- human sex trafficking. Susie talks to the caller about her options. The caller is not yet ready to leave her boyfriend, contact the police or go to a counseling center in her area. Susie talks to her in a non-judgmental and loving way about how she deserves to be treated with respect and should not be forced to have sex for money. At the end of the call, the teenage girl says she has to go, but will call back to the Hotline in the next few days.

6:15pm. Susie is now less than four hours into an eight-hour shift. By the time she logs off of the hotline at 11:15pm, she will have answered 40 calls.

As you can see, the work of the hotline advocates is difficult, emotionally draining and highly specialized. To be done well, it requires compassion, patience and a deep knowledge of both legal and immigration issues, and domestic violence resources across the nation. Yet the hotline advocates' starting salary of $33,000** barely places them in the lower middle class. (The U.S. Census Bureau defines "lower middle class" as having a gross annual personal income of $32,500 to $60,000). In stark contrast, in 2012, the average NFL player was paid $2 million dollars -- enough to pay the salaries of 60 hotline advocates. While it's not feasible that a hotline advocate will ever make even 1/20 of an NFL player's annual salary, it's imperative advocates are paid closer to a solid middle class wage.

According to NDVH CEO Katie Ray-Jones, since I began working at the National Domestic Violence Hotline in 2004, monthly call volumes have risen from less than 14,000 to over 21,000 calls per month. However, due to funding limitations, the number of advocates answering those calls has not increased at the same rate. This has resulted in both burn out for overworked hotline advocates and longer wait times for callers -- many of whom are in crisis situations and don't have time to wait. In 2013 alone, 77,000 calls to the hotline went unanswered due to lack of resources (i.e. not enough staff to answer the calls). And while hotline management has done an admirable job implementing an impressive "wellness" program to help hotline advocates deal with vicarious trauma, the job can still take a serious toll on advocates who are also often dealing with the financial stress of living on a very moderate income. (I wrote about my personal experiences and struggles as a National Domestic Violence Hotline advocate for xoJane).

With $9 billion in annual revenue, the NFL has deep pockets, and if their commitment to provide "significant resources" to the National Domestic Violence Hotline for the next several years results in raises for hardworking hotline advocates and an increase in the number of hotline staff answering the ever-rising number of calls to the hotline, it will be a worthy partnership indeed.

*All descriptions of calls are composited examples of typical calls based on my past experience working as a bilingual advocate on the Hotline.

**All statistical and salary information about the National Domestic Violence Hotline was provided by NDVH CEO Katie Ray-Jones.

If you or someone you know is being abused by an intimate partner, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or go to www.thehotline.org.