A national toll-free hotline for victims of domestic violence opened last week with a group of 15 full-time and part-time operators prepared to offer information on emergency shelters around the clock, throughout the United States. The hotline (800-333-SAFE) is a joint project of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) and Johnson & Johnson's consumer companies.

It became operational just as the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families heard testimony on a generally lagging national effort to assist battered wives and children.

The committee heard, for example, that despite new regulations, District of Columbia police have not appeared to alter their traditional practice of keeping hands off in cases of wife battering. At the hearings, conducted by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), one woman testified that her husband -- who has abused her repeatedly over the last four years, except when he was in jail or St. Elizabeths Hospital -- "received little more than a 'slap on the wrist' for crimes that, if committed by a friend or stranger, would have resulted in felony charges."

Committee members also heard from former congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, now district attorney for Brooklyn, N.Y. Holtzman said that "the high levels of violence against women show that age-old prejudices and stereotypes -- of women as sex objects, as a husband's property and as people who secretly don't mind being raped or beaten -- have not faded."

Holtzman, the first female DA in New York City, noted that in 36 states "in one form or another, a woman can be legally raped by her husband." Holtzman also noted that a Minnesota study "found that a mandatory arrest policy for police encountering domestic violence reduced the number of repeat spouse abuse calls by 47 percent between 1982 and 1984." New York City and "dozens of police departments across the country" have adopted such policies, Holtzman said, but the federal government needs to encourage, monitor and train for such policies. Holtzman herself has instituted training seminars on domestic violence for criminal court judges in Brooklyn and is seeking to extend them throughout New York City.

The House committee also heard testimony on the role of pornography in sexual assault, and heard Dr. Lenore E. Walker, a psychologist and leader in the study of domestic violence, testify that shared custody policies "effectively continue the batterer's power over {the battered wife} by keeping her in close enough proximity for him to continue his abusive behavior." Walker said that it is not enough just to get the battered wife to separate from the abusive spouse. "We found, somewhat to our surprise, that men who batter women simply do not let them go."