For a Texas victim hotline program in a community with a large, underserved Latino population, chat lines and text lines show promise for helping more clients in more ways than conventional phone hotlines alone.
Researchers are now assessing whether and how that promise has successfully helped victims, as part of an ongoing, multi-phase study.
Specifically, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin are evaluating SAFEline, a 24/7 hotline service of SAFE Alliance of Austin. The program delivers services to victims of sexual assault and exploitation, intimate partner violence, human trafficking, and child abuse and neglect. The study, supported by the National Institute of Justice, found that more than five out of six users of the SAFEline chat and text services reported that they found the service to be helpful (84.1%). Similar shares of users of the chat and text lines reported:
- Hotline staff were knowledgeable about community-based resources (85.3%).
- Users were satisfied with the amount of time hotline staff spent chatting or texting with them (82.9%).
The first phase of this ongoing study—the formative evaluation—also found that SAFE Alliance designed and built its chat and text lines in a way that can deliver needed resources to victims. During the second phase of this study, the evaluability assessment, researchers examined whether SAFEline hotline operations are structured in a way that makes it possible to evaluate how effective they are in serving client needs. In the final phase of the study, the outcome evaluation, the researchers assess whether, in fact, the SAFEline hotline helps victims as intended. Early indicators of customer satisfaction are a positive sign.
A key implication of the research is that chat and text hotlines are vital resources for delivering needed support to victims of crime and abuse.
Confirming the Critical Role of Victim Hotlines
The researchers’ formative evaluation found that local hotlines, generally, play a critical role in increasing user safety and service access. The study also confirmed an urgent need for multiple hotline platforms, such as chat, text, and phone.
The Austin study is an innovative approach to gauging the effectiveness of technology-based advocacy. Technology-based advocacy is a term for computer-driven chat and text lines that answer victim questions and deliver proactive support to victims, which includes outreach to other resources that help users, as needed. In an advocacy model, agency advocates work with people who have experienced violence or other harm to help them meet goals, gain resources and social support, and address safety and health concerns.
The team noted that technology-based advocacy in Texas and nationwide had increased exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The surging demand for victim hotline services amplifies the need for more research to guide hotline providers and support victims of interpersonal violence and abuse.
Filling the Research Gap on Victim Chat and Text Line Service and Functionality
Before the SAFEline study, the field lacked adequate research on a service model for chat and text advocacy services. The researchers sought to fill that gap by assessing how survivors of violence and other forms of abuse experience the text- and chat-based SAFEline service models. The ongoing study also measures how well the technology-based advocacy models address users’ needs.
Four Study Objectives
The researchers identified four objectives in the SAFEline formative evaluation and evaluability assessment phases of the study, grouped under this broader research question:
How are technology-based (chat and text) advocacy services (SAFEline) implemented for victims of crime in an agency setting (SAFE Alliance)?
Those objectives are to understand:
- How technology-based advocacy is being implemented at SAFEline and used by the SAFE Alliance to provide support to service users.
- How advocacy models to support crime victims are being adapted for different technological platforms.
- Who uses technology-facilitated advocacy; what are their needs, experiences.
- What agency and community supports and resources are needed to implement technology-based advocacy and conduct subsequent process and outcome evaluations.
How Technology-Based Advocacy is Being Implemented
Before evaluating the new SAFEline chat and text lines, the Texas researchers helped create them. A collaborative team of researchers and SAFEline staff developed recommendations for implementing chat and text services. The researchers noted that the hotlines were to be trauma-informed and employ social presence theory. Their report explained:
Like other approaches to advocacy, technology-facilitated advocacy is trauma-informed, survivor-centered, and social justice-oriented. Adaptations of advocacy practices for chat- and text-based are also informed by social presence theory. Social presence theory informs advocacy practices for chat- and text-based hotlines. Social presence is the degree to which a person conveys authenticity, or “realness,” in technology-assisted communication [citation omitted]and has been linked to increased satisfaction and positive learning outcomes.
Initially, the SAFEline research aimed to understand security and privacy priorities. In accordance with the Violence Against Women Act and the Family Violence Prevention and Service Act, SAFEline sought a chat and text platform that did not retain user sessions long-term.
SAFEline staff learned what client data they could retain internally. They also chose platforms that:
- Give users an easy way to delete chat and text conversations.
- Protect users from digital abuse.
- Route “off-target” messages to appropriate services.
- Facilitate communication with users on privacy interests.
SAFEline strongly considered costs as it built out its chat and text hotlines. Bilingual staff work at SAFEline 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
To assess how SAFEline implemented its chat, text, and call hotlines, the researchers planned a study with three distinct evaluation phases:
- A formative evaluation.
- An evaluability assessment.
- An outcome evaluation.
The outcome evaluation could proceed only if the researchers first found that the hotline services were structured in a way that made scientific evaluation of their effectiveness possible. (See the sidebar “Three Phases of SAFEline Hotline Evaluation Study.”)
The report that informed this article presented the results of the first two evaluation phases: formative evaluation and evaluability assessment.
Advocacy Models Adapted for Different Platforms and The Importance of User Choice
The researchers compared SAFEline’s phone hotline content to the program’s chat and text line content to better understand adaptations of phone-based advocacy for chat- and text-based advocacy. They listened in on phone calls and read transcripts of chat and text sessions. The team observed key ways that chat and text sessions differed from phone calls:
- Phone calls can be shorter, as advocates can rely on tone and audio cues not present in chat or text. Hotline staff noted that they had to “dig in” to understand chat and text cues that may have been more obvious on phone calls.
- Advocates, users, and prospective users felt it was easier to establish rapport via phone.
- Some advocates and service users reported that it was easier to assess user safety over the phone.
- Staff said it was easier to share information and resources with hotline users by chat and text than by phone.
In the end, hotline users and SAFEline staff emphasized the critical role of user choice of hotline platforms. Consistent with a survivor-centered approach, the study found that offering multiple hotline platforms (chat, text, phone, and even video) allows users to reach out for services in the way they feel most comfortable.
High Use of Hotlines; User Need Areas; Outreach to Latinos and Other Underserved Populations
The study found that, in all, users initiated an average of 18,735 SAFEline call, text, and chat sessions per year, based on data from January 2018 to July 2021. That total reflects a high level of use. Among the total contacts for the period, 8,688 were chat and text contacts.
User Areas of Interest
User data showed SAFEline clients were most interested in getting help with personal counseling, housing, and legal advocacy.
A survey of call users revealed that they were most interested in counseling (49.7%) and housing (43.3%).
An analysis of chat and text transcripts found that primary areas of inquiry included housing (29.1%), legal advocacy (24.8%), and counseling/emotional support (23%).
Interviews with clients confirmed these variations in interest areas based on hotline platform type.
Help for Latino and Other Underserved Populations
An important purpose of the SAFEline chat and text lines is to improve service access for Austin’s large Latino population. Thirty-nine percent of Texans in Austin are Hispanic or Latino, and 30% speak Spanish at home. Chat and text services create new opportunities to provide services to those underserved populations. Since SAFEline chat and text services began, the program has expanded outreach to Spanish-speaking Latinos and two other underserved populations: youth and individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
The Austin-area Latino population needs victim support services. About 30% of Latino women experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime.  In addition, Latino individuals face greater barriers to seeking help, including immigration-related fears, cultural insensitivity at shelters, and systemic racism.
The study implies that technology-based advocacy could increase resource access for historically marginalized and hard-to-reach populations. Chat and text hotlines extend the survivor-centered advocacy service model by creating choice of communication mode. As evidenced by growing service use at SAFEline, they also reach more people.
Research methods included interviews with SAFEline hotline users and staff (or advocates), as well as the larger survey of users. Of 11 staff who were interviewed, six were classified as “Hispanic/Latinx,” according to the study report. Of 50 SAFEline users or prospective users who were interviewed, 11 were classified at “Hispanic/Latinx.”
Preliminary results revealed that SAFEline chat and text services increased access to resources for teen and emerging adult survivors, Spanish-speaking service users, and persons who are deaf or hard of hearing.
The research team’s survey of 171 people who used the SAFEline chat or text line showed that 82.9% of users were satisfied with the amount of time SAFEline advocates spent with them during their session. Of those surveyed, 79.5% reported overall satisfaction rates (satisfied/very satisfied), which indicates high levels of program acceptability and utility. Further, service users living in SAFE’s shelter and supportive housing reported using SAFEline for ongoing assistance. Staff also felt satisfied from interactions with service users on SAFEline.
Community Supports and Resources for Community-Based Advocacy
Advocacy-based service seeks to provide tangible resources and support for victims of violence and others impacted by violence, abuse, and harm. The study identified several skills that advocates use to deliver needed victim resources, including:
- Help-seeking assistance.
- Identification of informal support sources.
- Identification of formal support.
- Resource referral.
Technology-based advocacy can play a vital role in connecting people with existing resources. Services like SAFEline educate victims and other consumers and increase our understanding and knowledge of the impacts of violence, abuse, and harm on survivors, survivor support networks, and community members. They also:
teach people how to access help. SAFEline and similar platforms may be particularly impactful when linked with universal and targeted violence prevention programs, where chat, text, and phone can provide individualized information for people participating in educational programs that need support on their own unique situations.
In a survey of chat- and text-line users, 75.8% reported that they “learned a lot” from the hotline about becoming safer; 84.1% agreed or strongly agreed that SAFEline staff advocates helped them with their needs; and 85.3% felt advocates were knowledgeable about available resources in the community.
Key Implication: Chat and Text Hotlines Are Vital to Victim Services
Chat and text hotlines are critical to giving victim clients access to needed services. Chat, text, and phone hotlines also play an important role in community education by connecting people to local supports for consumer education. Importantly, they also teach people how to access help. Technology-based advocacy can increase access to services for historically marginalized and hard-to-reach populations.
Victim-Service Evaluations: Three Main Analytical Tools
Like other NIJ-sponsored evaluations of victim-services programs, the University of Texas team’s SAFEline hotline evaluations have employed three essential analytical tools:
- Service model — A theoretical model of the program’s purpose and function.
- Logic model — A visual road map of intended program outcomes and how they should work. Logic models benefit programs by guiding development, implementation, and evaluation.
- Theory of change — An evidence-based plan for changing victims’ lives for the better.
See the accompanying sidebar “Three Tools for the Formative Evaluation” for more detail.
Limitations of the Research
Data collection for the formative evaluation took place before and after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. That created recruitment delays and modifications, which limited who could participate in the study. In addition, study recruitment and promotion were largely virtual, which may have limited who received information about the study.
The chat and text transcripts did not contain demographic information. As a result, insights on the experiences of marginalized populations using those services were not fully captured in chat and text data.
Victims of interpersonal violence and other trauma increasingly look to technology-based support services such as victim text and chat hotlines to help them acquire necessary resources to restore their lives. Victim service programs can help victims more effectively when they allow social scientists to assess and report how well they are serving their clients. NIJ’s multi-million-dollar program supporting research on victim-service hotline programs promises more clarity and constructive insight on what victim hotlines can do for victims of crime and other personal trauma. With more evidence-based knowledge, victim chat and text lines can fine-tune their services to make them more accessible to a diverse client base and better help victims heal.
The initial phases of the SAFEline hotlines in Austin found signs of good progress in installing and operating services well suited to their purpose of helping victims of crime and other abuse.
About This Article
The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2018-ZD-CX-0004, awarded to The University of Texas at Austin. This article is based on the grantee report “Evaluation of Technology-Based Advocacy Services (ETA): Technical Report,“ by Ruben Parra-Cardona, Ph.D. and Leila Wood, Ph.D., MSSW.
Sidebar: Three Phases of SAFEline Hotline Evaluation Study
Formative Evaluation: The first phase of the evaluation of SAFEline’s advocacy-based victim service model measured whether SAFEline formed its advocacy-based hotlines in a way that enabled victims of crime and other trauma to attain needed resources and improve their lives. An advocacy-based model of service empowers consumers by advocating on their behalf to individuals or institutions, as appropriate, to address their needs.
That initial phase of evaluation found that the SAFEline hotlines, as designed and formed, could achieve that purpose.
Evaluability Assessment: The research team also conducted an evaluability assessment of SAFEline, bridging the first phase, formative evaluation, and the final outcome evaluation.
NIJ supports several scientific evaluations of victim-service programs, such as SAFEline, to test how well they work for clients. NIJ recognized that some programs will benefit from a phased evaluation. For those programs, including SAFEline, a separate evaluability assessment follows the initial formative evaluation phase to test whether the program is ready to support a final, rigorous outcome evaluation.
The evaluability assessment of SAFEline found that the Austin hotline program was a strong candidate for an outcome evaluation.
Outcome Evaluation: A process and outcome evaluation, designed to assess whether SAFEline achieved positive outcomes for its victim clients, was under way as of August 2022.
In that final phase of the study, the researchers proposed to:
- Expand the evidence base on the use and implementation of the chat- and text-based advocacy services.
- Assess short- and long-term outcomes of technology-based advocacy for survivors of interpersonal violence.
- Further understand the impact that COVID-19 had on the delivery of technology-based services.
Victims who use the SAFEline services would like increased safety, reduced isolation, and increased resource knowledge. But there are barriers to successful chat and text hotline communications. Examples are:
- Lack of user comfort or access to the platform.
- A user perception that the services lack warmth.
- Lack of access to help due to high demand for interpersonal violence services in the community.
The outcome evaluation intends to test and expand on the early signs, observed during the initial formative evaluation, that SAFEline users were satisfied with the program’s advocacy services for victims.
Sidebar: Three Tools for the Formative Evaluation
An Advocacy Service Model: Survivor-Led, Trauma-Informed, and Culturally Relevant
The SAFEline formative evaluation examined the hotline’s value through the lens of an advocacy model of service.
As a service model, advocacy addresses both individual- and system-level change. Program advocates work to help individual survivors while acting to improve institutional and agency responses to survivors of interpersonal violence.
The researchers identified fidelity measures, informed by SAFEline program elements, to calculate the program’s adherence to the advocacy service model.
An advocacy model of victim service is tailored to the client population. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, Austin, the home of the University of Texas at Austin (UT), has a population of just under 1 million, with 94.9% of households having a computer and 87.5% having access to broadband internet. The adolescent and emerging adult population of Austin is a major focus of service delivery, with 29% of the local population between the ages of 10 and 29.
With that advocacy-based service model as a reference, the UT team will further refine issues related to cultural responsiveness and equity in technology-facilitated advocacy models. They reported their plans to expand evaluations of chat and text advocacy services to traditionally underserved groups, with an emphasis on:
- Latino, Spanish-speaking communities.
- Adolescents and emerging adults.
- People who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Many Spanish speaking individuals and those of Latin American descent are underserved for several reasons, including:
- Lack of English fluency.
- Greater barriers to help-seeking, including possible immigration-related fears, cultural insensitivity, and racism.
- Lack of internet access.
- Lack of familiarity with internet-based communication.
Logic Model: A Blueprint for Change
The SAFEline logic model incorporated SAFEline inputs; activities; outputs; identification of target audience; short-, medium-, and long-term outcomes; and external factors influencing the program and participants. The logic model illustrates the programmatic theory of change for SAFEline.
Theory of Change: Three Ways to Look at It
A theory of change is an evidence-based general description of how a program creates positive change. In this instance, the change in victims’ lives would be increased safety, reduced isolation, and increased resource knowledge. The researchers cited three applicable theories of change for SAFEline and its clients:
- Conservation of resource theory: Survivor resources may be lost or reduced in the aftermath of trauma. But resource gain can mitigate immediate loss of personal resources as well as long-term impacts of experiencing a trauma. Survivors gain resources, facilitated by advocacy, in the form of connection with others. Agency services also connect survivors with support resources such as housing, counseling, children’s services, and financial aid. Those services increase client well-being.
- Empowerment theory: This theory drives advocacy models by emphasizing survivor autonomy and advocating for cultural competence, survivor choice, and collaborative decision-making.
- Trauma-informed care principles: This theory of change recognizes the ongoing impacts of violence on survivors and their evolving needs. It is grounded in the belief that survivors are experts on their own lives. Advocacy services applying trauma-informed care principles typically focus on understanding the individualized nature of trauma, responding with services that prioritize safety, and maximizing opportunities to regain autonomy.
[note 1] Matthew Joseph Breiding, Jieru Chen, and Michelle C. Black, “Intimate partner violence in the United States– 2010,” Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control, February 2014, https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/21961.
[note 2] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color,” Stanford Law Review 43 no. 6 (July 1991), 1241–1299, https://doi.org/10.2307/1229039.
[note 3] Mariaelena Gonzalez, Ashely Sanders-Jackson, and Tashelle Wright, “Web-based health information technology: Access among Latinos varies by subgroup affiliation,” Journal of Medical Internet Research 21 no. 4 (April 2019), https://doi.org/10.2196/10389.