Q: My cousin has been missing since Friday night following a fight with her husband in front of her children. Today she reached out to her mom to say she left on her own, is safe, does not know where she is but is being cared for by a shelter. She has been moved a few times but was blindfolded when moved. She told her mom she will not be back until her husband is out of the picture. She said she was not sure if or when she would call again.
Her kids are still with her husband. This does not sound like how I have read that shelters work. There is a part of me that wonders if she thought she reached out to a shelter that was maybe using the shelter as a cover for human trafficking.
I have encouraged my aunt to call the state patrol with the details of the call. Please advise—does this sound legit to you? I am concerned about her and her kids. Thanks, A.
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Yikes. No, this definitely doesn’t sound legit to me. A bona fide domestic violence shelter would never blindfold a survivor, nor would they keep the location of their shelter a secret to a survivor who is with them.
Just to be sure, I checked with lead advocate and executive director Ida Petkus of the Domestic Violence Advocacy Center in Celebration, Florida, who seconds my assessment.
“There is no reason to blindfold a victim. Most importantly, this can further traumatize them, since domestic violence is about having control,” says Petkus.
If this were a legit shelter that actually blindfolded your cousin, they should be reported. You can start with reaching out to law enforcement or your state’s domestic violence coalition. Of course, the first priority is the safety of your cousin. I would consider filing a missing person’s report if she doesn’t reach out again soon. Assuming she is actually at a shelter in the area, local law enforcement will have the address of all shelters, even those with confidential locations.
While shelters will ask survivor participants not to disclose their location to the abuser—doing so can be grounds for eviction as it puts all residents in danger—they wouldn’t typically limit the survivor from sharing their whereabouts with their support persons, like friends and family. After all, shelters are voluntary. They’re not jail. You’re allowed to come and go as you please (unless there’s an evening curfew, again, for everyone’s safety and comfort), make phone calls, hold a job, go to school, bring your children, etc.
Speaking of, do we know if her children are safe? While you didn’t specifically mention domestic abuse, if she is in a protected shelter in a nondisclosed location, I would assume she is trying to prevent an abuser from finding her. If this is the case, it would be important to make sure the abusive partner is not harming the children left behind in the home. Before reaching out to child protective services, however, consider calling the ChildHelp hotline, 800-4-A-Child, which is staffed 24/7 with professional counselors trained in child abuse and neglect. They can help you come up with the best plan for checking in on your cousin’s children. (To read more about intervening when concerned for a child’s safety read, “Ask Amanda: I Fear For My Grandchildren’s Lives.”)
Back to your cousin’s situation, is there a possibility she doesn’t feel comfortable sharing the truth of her whereabouts yet? Petkus suggests that perhaps she knows where she is, and is at a shelter, but isn’t ready to disclose the abuse yet to her mom, so it may seem easier to lie than to admit she’s at a domestic violence shelter.
Disclosing abuse can be a very personal and tough thing to come to terms with. Your cousin may also fear for her mother’s safety if she gives her too many details. An abuser will often threaten to harm a survivor’s friends and family if the survivor reaches out for help. It’s one of many ways abusers maintain control of a survivor.
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It’s also possible your cousin is staying with someone else they know and are not at a shelter. However, when you reach your cousin, you may want to encourage her to file for an order of protection as soon as possible. Leaving an abusive partner is notoriously the most dangerous time for a survivor and the abuser may be looking for her. Staying with a mutual friend could put her friend’s safety at risk, as well as her own.
Is it human trafficking? That’s hard to say without any other information. But it’s smart of you to consider that possibility. You may want to review these 23 Signs of Human Trafficking so you know what to look for if you get more details about this so-called shelter from your cousin. If in doubt, consider mentioning this to the police.
We wish you luck and hope this situation has a positive ending for all involved.
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
Editor’s Note: We encouraged this letter writer, upon receiving her email, to reach out to local law enforcement as soon as possible. Luckily, we were informed soon after that her cousin had been located and was safe, was in a shelter and had obtained an order of protection against the abuser.
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