A Descriptive Study of a Volunteer-Based Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: Implications for Training and Practice
To better understand this ubiquitous service, the authors present a descriptive study of a not-for-profit sexual assault hotline providing regional services. Analyses reveal how the hotline is used by victims and the public, specifically identifying frequency and types of callers, timeframes and categories of assault, and what services and referrals are provided. The data is compared for congruence with stated program goals and volunteer training curricula to assess if content prepares volunteers for the reality of hotline usage.
Methods: A retrospective analysis of archival data was performed. Five-years of documented hotline call sheets spanning 2008-2012 comprised the sampling frame (N=1970). Twenty-percent of call sheets were selected for analysis using stratified random methods (n=383). The sample represents calls proportionate to the number received per month to account for fluctuating seasonal spikes. All call sheets sampled were included, except those designated as prank calls (resulting n=357). Descriptive analyses were performed.
Results: Results revealed that primary victims (40.5%) and professionals (42.6%) made up the majority of callers. Victims were 85% female and 11.9% male. Of calls identifying the victim’s age, 46.7% were minors, 30.8% fell between 18 and 25, and 22.5% were over age 26. In over 50% of cases, calls were made within 72-hours of the assault, while 24.5% of calls related to assault occurring outside of a year. The largest portion of calls reported physical assault (42.6%), followed by psychological distress (24.6%). Less than 7% of calls were not applicable to agency services.
Agency-related services were the primary reason for calling (82.9%), while 31% of callers sought external community resources (not mutually exclusive). Empathy (40%) and information (72.5%) were frequently provided. The majority of referrals made by hotline staff were to agency personnel (43.6%), followed by other sexual assault centers (11.4%), and counseling (10%). Referrals to law enforcement, child advocacy or protective services (despite the frequency of minor victims), and/or health services were provided in less than 5% of cases.
Implications: This study is a needed contribution to explore how hotlines are used, including strengths and gaps in services. For instance, volunteers made minimal referrals related to health or law enforcement. Additionally, as the majority of calls reported a recent assault (within 72-hrs), it is imperative that volunteers have crisis counseling skills and are supported to prevent secondary trauma. Authors discuss findings in terms of the “real-world” applicability and present implications for social work practice and future research.