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Heidi Defendorf at Family and Children's Services in Westminster Wednesday, October 16, 2019.
Heidi Defendorf at Family and Children's Services in Westminster Wednesday, October 16, 2019. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

October is a month devoted to domestic violence awareness and, for many victims, the path to escaping abuse begins with a phone call.

Heidi Defendorf is one of the voices on the other end of the Carroll County 24-hour domestic violence hotline, at 443-865-8031. She provides emotional support and connects victims to resources that can aid them in leaving their abuser. Carroll County got its own hotline in 2015, and before that shared a hotline with Baltimore County, according to Kelley Rainey, director of case management for Family and Children’s Services (FCS).

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Nationally, approximately one in three women and one in four men are affected by domestic violence, according to Rainey. From July 2018 to June 2019, FCS served 1,986 victims of domestic violence in Carroll County alone, Rainey said.

The Carroll County Times connected with Defendorf to find out what it’s like answering hotline calls and how she helps victims navigate the road to a better future.

Q: How long have you been a hotline worker? What motivated you to take this job?

A: I have worked for the Carroll County 24-hour Domestic Violence Hotline since July 2017. I took this job because I wanted to help people in their time of need and be a helping hand for them in their journey as a survivor of domestic violence. Domestic violence has been a topic that has been very close to my heart for many years now and I have loved the opportunity to be able to learn more about the topic and be on the front lines of helping people and connecting them to life-saving resources.

Q: How do you handle a phone call from someone in crisis? How are you trained?

A: We are trained to be trauma-informed at all times. Being trauma-informed means taking into account the past and present trauma someone has experienced and treating the person as a whole. We have completed trainings on trauma-informed care, person-centered planning, crisis management, active listening, and the basics of domestic violence and abuser tactics. During a hotline call, it is important to be as trauma-informed and calm as possible. When someone calls the hotline and is in crisis, sometimes hearing the advocate stay calm helps them. I try to reassure callers that help is available to them, no matter the need or situation.

Q: How does this job affect you emotionally? What do you do after you complete an especially stressful call?

A: This job affects me differently each day and with each call. All calls are difficult in their own way because no one should experience abuse of any kind. The particularly difficult calls are sometimes harder to process through, therefore I may have to practice more self-care that day. Often, if it was a very stressful or emotional call, I will use some of the same grounding techniques I teach callers on the hotline, such as deep breathing, pushing my toes into the floor (like I’m pressing them into mud), or closing my eyes and visualizing something that makes me happy. When I leave work I usually go to the gym or go to my Jiu Jitsu class for stress relief, especially if there was a more stressful call that day. My supervisor is also very helpful if I need to process a difficult call with someone. She has done this work for more than four years, so she understands.

Q: Sometimes victims of abuse open up to friends or family before seeking professional help. What advice would you give to someone who is just learning from a loved one that they are being abused? How should they respond when someone has chosen to be so vulnerable in front of them?

A: I think, first and foremost, listen to them and what they have to say. This survivor has chosen you to confide in because they feel safe enough to do so. I also think it is important to thank them for trusting you with this information. It is incredibly important not to victim-blame. Sometimes, people don’t realize they are victim-blaming. Victim-blaming is present in comments such as, “He’s such a great guy. There’s no way he would do that to you. What did you do to cause this?” or “Why don’t you just leave?” This may be the first time a survivor has chosen to talk to someone about this and your reaction can determine if they feel safe enough to confide in a stranger (such as someone on the hotline). If someone you love is confiding in you that they are being abused, you can always reach out to the hotline (call or text). We are more than happy to support loved ones as well with resources or advice on how to best support the survivor in your life.

Q: Is there a particular conversation you had on the hotline that impacted you differently than other calls or changed your perspective?

A: There have been a few calls over the years that have stuck with me or changed my perspective. One call in particular stands out to me. Statistics show that certain demographics are more affected by domestic violence, however, after this call it proved that domestic violence can affect anybody of all demographics, race, and socioeconomic status. This caller was of the upper class status and was highly educated and domestic violence still impacted her life. This caller stated she could not let her family, friends, or neighbors know the horrors she faced on a daily basis because she portrayed the image of “the perfect happy family.” Domestic violence does not discriminate, it can affect all walks of life.

Q: What resources do you typically direct victims of domestic violence to?

A: Family & Children’s Services in Carroll County has dedicated staff that has helped change countless numbers of lives. Survivors of domestic violence can receive case management services, counseling, legal aid, court accompaniment, and access to safe shelter. If Family & Children’s Services is closed, survivors may reach out to the Carroll County 24-Hour Domestic Violence Hotline, 443-865-8031 at any time of the day or night for the resources they need. The hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year. Survivors can also text the hotline if it is safer for them to do so or because they may not be ready to talk to someone yet. The hotline can also provide callers with out-of-county resources if it is not safe for them to stay in Carroll County. The National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-977-7233, is also a great resource to contact for assistance.

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