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Government shutdown threatens Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline, which answered 25,000 calls last year

In a building on Chicago’s Near Northwest Side, inspirational quotes and colorful decorations brighten a basement room where several phone operators are heard repeatedly asking callers, “Are you safe?”

The voices on the other end of the line are looking for help through the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline — a 24/7 confidential call center where operators refer victims of abuse to local shelters, counseling centers, legal advocates and a number of other resources throughout the state.

But that help could cease in the coming weeks if the federal government shutdown lingers. The hotline is mostly funded through a Victims of Crime Act grant, administered by U.S. Department of Justice employees, said Amanda Pyron, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, which runs the hotline. Those funds remain on hold as long as furloughed DOJ employees aren’t working, she said.

As of the first of the year, the hotline has had to dip into its reserves, which Pyron estimates will run dry in less than a month. If the government is not back up and running by then, she said, the state’s hotline will shut down and divert calls to the Texas-based National Domestic Violence Hotline.

“We are worried,” Pyron said. “It’s important to have a statewide hotline because our operators are trained experts not only in domestic violence, but in what resources are available across the state of Illinois.”

The stakes are high. Pyron and other domestic violence advocates say any barrier to getting help could prove dangerous to victims trying to escape their abusers and further contribute to the pervasive problem of domestic violence, which affects 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men, according to the national hotline.

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“It’s scary,” said Stephanie Love-Patterson, executive director of Connections for Abused Women and their Children, which runs one of the city’s domestic violence shelters. “For victims and survivors who are reaching out, it’s critical to have resources available locally that they can connect to.”

Although the national hotline could still offer support and point callers to resources using a database of organizations across the state, “there’s unique aspects to each state,” Love-Patterson said, adding that any complication to seeking help could stop someone from asking for it.

“There’s a lot of shame and guilt associated with being a victim of domestic violence,” she said. “Even picking up the phone to say … ‘I’m a victim of domestic violence’ is huge.”

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is not affected financially by the government shutdown because it is funded through a different federal department and uses last fiscal year’s dollars, said Chief Executive Officer Katie Ray-Jones. But if Illinois and other states that have their own hotlines divert calls, it could put a strain on the already high volume. State hotlines have referred callers to the national line in the past, including during natural disasters, but not for an extended period, Ray-Jones said.

“We’ve not seen this situation before where we could be looking at hotlines across the country rolling to us,” she said. “We will be greatly impacted.”

In 2018, national hotline staff was only able to answer about 70 percent of the calls, emails, texts and online chats that came in at a rate of about 1,000 to 1,200 per day, Ray-Jones said. “So increased volume … would put us in a position that would impact services.”

The Illinois hotline, which will be 20 years old in May, employs 18 victim information and referral advocates who staff the phones in shifts. They answered nearly 25,000 calls in 2018, Pyron said, and more than 340 so far this month. Most of the advocates are longtime employees who have worked those phones for at least 10 years, she said.

The advocates say callers are often trying to leave their abusers, which is a dangerous time when victims are most at risk. Other times “callers aren’t ready to leave, but they want to bounce things off someone,” said Debra Burton, a supervisor who came to work at the hotline in 2001.

Besides making referrals to services or shelters, the advocates offer support and encouragement, she said.

“We want to empower them,” Burton said, explaining that instead of telling callers what she thinks they should do, she’ll ask, “‘What do you think is best for you?’” It’s a way of giving them back that control, she said.

But she also points out that safety is most important. Advocates first ask the women (and some men) callers if they are somewhere where their abuser will not overhear the call. Burton has even devised safety phrases callers can say to signal that their abuser has returned home so they can end the call.

Burton said there are many resources she offers callers, but she’s typically checking for available space in domestic violence shelters throughout Illinois. These shelters differ from homeless shelters; they tend to be smaller, homelike environments geared mostly toward women and their children seeking a safe place to sleep.

Shelter space is limited, Burton said, and that can be frustrating. “When you don’t have anywhere to send them? That hurts.”

On a call this week, Burton helped a woman trying to find a place for herself and her baby, but the only two shelters with space were far from her job. Burton explained the options: She could go to the shelter despite the drive, or call back in the evening and then daily to see what else opened up. Burton also told her to make sure to gather important documents and to always have her cellphone on her, among other safety tips.

When callers do not want to go to a shelter, or there’s no room, advocates help them develop safety plans, Burton said. These plans could include alternative, safe places to stay, or tips on how to stay safe in the home.

While most of the time, they don’t know outcomes and hope for the best, one caller sticks out in the minds of the hotline staff — a woman who would call daily for nearly a month in 2014 when all the shelters were full.

Patricia Alexander, who has worked at the hotline for about 10 years, said she took many of her calls. “She kept begging me, ‘Please find me someplace because he’s going to kill me.’”

Despite searching for space in shelters in Illinois and Wisconsin, Alexander could not find an open bed. Instead, she helped the unnamed woman figure out a safe place to stay — with her boss in Wisconsin.

One night, Alexander heard a report on the news: An Arlington Heights man, Cristian Loga-Negru, had killed his wife, Roxana Abrudan, with a hatchet after stalking her and following her to Wisconsin. He was later sentenced to life in prison.

Even without a name, Alexander said she knew. “I was sick.”

Alexander said she thinks about that woman as she tries to help others who call the hotline.

“She’s in my head.”

kthayer@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @knthayer

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