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Domestic Abuse: Online Chat Offers Survivors a Digital Lifeline

For some survivors of domestic violence, the veil of privacy that talking online affords is the only way they will consider seeking help.

For some victims of domestic violence, picking up the phone for help is impossible or unfathomable. So hotlines are offering tech-focused tools to encourage survivors to reach out -- especially in the wake of headlines involving Ray Rice and other NFL players.

Online chat and text services can offer a veil of privacy and anonymity that helps survivors feel more comfortable than they would on the phone, domestic-abuse experts say. Victims may feel shame or panic when describing the abuse out loud over the phone, or they can't physically get away from their abusers to place a call.

Some services can even pinpoint the best time to suggest a chat session to a survivor who's browsing an abuse site, based on the keywords they searched or the pages where they're spending the most time.

"It's easier to throw things over the digital wall," Brian Pinero, director of digital services for the non-profit National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH), told NBC News. "People will open up and talk in ways they never would if they were speaking aloud. And they might never get an hour, even 20 minutes, uninterrupted on the phone."

"There's something about saying things out loud that can make it feel more real -- and that can be terrifying," he added.

A 'digital wall'

Online chat is a potential way out for those who can't make a phone call, Pinero said, but the anonymity it affords is also especially helpful for those suffering sexual abuse, as well as deaf, male and LGBT survivors.

"As an agent, you have to be so careful when someone is reaching out -- if you're on the phone and you're a man saying you're being abused, you don't want someone to necessarily assume your partner is a woman," Pinero said. "With chat there's no barrier, no one hearing your voice, no need to explain your full situation if you don't want to."

Chat isn't the only way to reach out, and it isn't the best method for every survivor, pointed out Nadine Kaslow, the president of the American Psychological Association. But, she said, any method that removes potential barriers for at least some survivors is welcome.

"The [abuser] will literally say, 'If you say a word to anyone, I'll kill you,'" said Nadine Kaslow, the president of the American Psychological Association. "So it takes a lot for people to reach out. And if they don't get the support they need on that initial contact, they might not want to reach out a second time."

At NDVH -- which launched in 1996 and is partially funded through a federal act -- chat is now the number one way survivors reach out, followed by phone and then text. They first piloted live chat in 2007 through a youth-focused program called Loveisrespect. At first live chat was available only during certain hours, but NDVH expanded chat and added a texting service, both available 24/7, in September 2011.

Survivors who choose to chat can provide as much or as little information as they would like in a "pre-chat" survey -- which helps NDVH prioritize based on who may need help immediately -- before being connected to a live agent at NDVH's Austin call center.

In one example from 2012 that Pinero relayed, a woman reached out to a NDVH chat agent via a campus library computer. Her husband was physically abusing her, she explained to the agent, and he controlled all parts of her life including where and with whom she went. But he "allowed" her to go back to school.

"'This is the one place he doesn't control me,' she said. She had never said a word to anyone about the abuse before this," Pinero said.

When is best to suggest a chat to an abuse survivor?

There's also a way for NDVH and other hotline agents to get some context around a survivor's situation, behind the scenes.

NDVH uses a company called LivePerson to power its chat windows. But LivePerson also offers its 8,000 clients -- which include retailers like AT&T -- the ability to find out a lot more about the people reaching out via chat through a "proactive" service. It's designed to show the "chat with us!"-style message to a person browsing a site at a time that they're most likely to accept.

To do this, LivePerson uses an algorithm that can pull in dozens of data points: the keywords searched to get to a site, which parts of the site they visited and for how long, and even if they're hovering over the X to leave the site. (LivePerson uses ad-tracking-like cookies to determine this information, the company said, but no personal information like chat content is stored. It's up to the hotlines to direct their visitors to clear their browsing history and cookies, the company said.)

"If I jump out at you too quickly saying, 'Hey! I want to help you,' that can scare someone off," said LivePerson CEO and founder Robert LoCascio. "That's not good if you're trying to get someone to buy something -- but with abuse it's even more subjective, and more important to help quickly."

Users are "scored" on a 0 to 1 scale that determines whether they receive a live chat suggestion message. Someone who searched "advice about a friend being abused" might rank lower on the scale, for example, while a person spending a lot of time on a page about abusers with firearms might rank highly. The algorithm also considers how many chat agents are available at the time.

"We found that a human doesn't really have the capability to consider beyond about three factors, but the machine can consider 30," LoCascio said.

LivePerson can automatically set parameters for who receives a chat suggestion, or clients can set their own rules. The system may work well for clients like AT&T, who are equipped with loads of agents -- but for NDVH, which tested the program for one month in 2012, it simply didn't work.

That’s because the demand was just too high. NDVH, which is housed in a single call center in Austin, has only three to eight agents working on live chat at any given time. In 2013 they received more than 331,000 total contacts by chat, phone, or text. Nearly 77,500 went unanswered due to lack of resources.

Too many calls, too few agents

Too few agents is one of the reasons other abuse hotlines haven't enabled live chat. Safe Horizon, a domestic-violence advocacy group that also serves as the intake and placement system for New York City survivors seeking shelters, currently runs only a phone hotline and an email inbox.

"We stay really, really busy as it is," said Juanito Vargas, an associate vice president at Safe Horizon who oversees the hotlines and community programs. The group receives about 120,000 calls each year.

Despite the taxed resources, Vargas says Safe Horizon is planning to add live chat at some point because "we want to be where people are communicating."

But Vargas, like others who run online resources for abuse victims, is always concerned about a controlling abuser monitoring the survivor's online activity. Many abuse hotline and shelter sites include detailed instructions about how to clear phone and computer browsing history.

"It's just something we have to consider very closely. The safety of our survivors is always foremost," Vargas said. "But we will get into live chat."

The Ray Rice effect

At NDVH, live chat has picked up when domestic violence makes headlines, said Brian Pinero, the group's digital director. The youth-focused Loveisrespect received a 495% increase in phone calls in February and March 2009, when singer Chris Brown was arrested for assaulting girlfriend Rihanna.

More recently, NDVH received 84 percent more contacts in the two days following the release of video that showed NFL player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée Janay in the face.

"It gives them a place to say, 'Well, maybe she provoked him, and that makes it OK, right?' We explain why it isn't," Pinero said. "And if they're really talking about their own situation, it's a way to start the conversation and keep it going."