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Q: My husband is becoming increasingly abusive and I’m thinking of taking my kids to a shelter for a while so he can’t find us. We need a new start. I don’t have a job or any money, since he controls all of it, and I’m worried about what will happen after my time is up at the shelter. I’m also worried about my kids adjusting to living in a shelter, and how I’ll get them to school without a car since he won’t let me take ours.
A: I understand your fear, but I want to applaud you for having the courage to consider taking that first, very difficult step. Leaving an abuser is a notoriously dangerous time for survivors, so going somewhere, like a shelter, where he can’t find you, is definitely a good idea. Please make sure you create a safety plan before leaving. A safety plan is an outline of how you can stay safe during abusive incidents, and may include how and when you plan to leave an abuser. It typically also includes a list of things you’ll want to make sure you pack to take with you, if there’s time.
Before or immediately after you leave, consider also getting an order of protection served on your husband so he can’t contact you.
Going to a shelter is a brave decision. Relocating yourself and your kids to an unfamiliar place isn’t easy. You’ll likely be staying with other survivors who are going through varying levels of trauma as well. The situation may be uncomfortable at first but you’ll be safe. And you’ll be showing your kids that an alternative to living in a home with an abuser who uses control, abuse and violence is possible. You’ll be giving them and yourself hope while starting your journey to a safer, healthier future.
The path to that future may seem blurry right now. I understand how there are questions flooding your mind about how it will all work. While I can’t predict exactly what will happen, I can tell you this: a shelter is more than just a temporary room. Most, if not all, shelters have a wide variety of services available to survivors who are ready to make a change in their life. Trained advocates are there to help you transition from shelter to a more permanent living arrangement that doesn’t involve abuse. This might look like transitional housing (this could be a shelter, hotel or apartment that will give you shelter past your stay at the domestic violence shelter), or assistance in getting your own place. They may be able to help you with transportation costs to move to another place where your abusive husband can’t find you. Or, they may help you transition to a living arrangement back at home where your abusive husband no longer lives, thanks to an order of protection, a kick-out order or a legal separation. For parents of school-age children, you may also be advised to change your childrens’ school so the abuser can’t find them.
Taking a step into shelter is the first step, but not the last. There are many services you may not expect at a domestic violence shelter, but which will help you have a safer future. These include:
- Crisis hotline. Before you even go, call a shelter’s hotline, most of which are available 24/7, to let them know you need to escape. Make sure to be honest about the severity of his abuse, especially the most recent incident. Shelters often have to triage survivors, giving priority in their very limited space to those who are in the most immediate danger.
- Order of protection services. Advocates at shelters can help you navigate the paperwork needed for an order of protection, and navigate the court system. Sometimes, you may be able to get an emergency order of protection right at the shelter via the police who can come to you there.
- Counseling. A shelter should be able to connect you to free or low-cost therapy. This should be trauma-informed and offered by professionals trained to work with domestic violence survivors, including children.
- Support groups. Many shelters offer both in-person and online support groups that allow you to connect with other survivors.
- Sexual assault support. Shelters can offer support in filing a police report for sexual assault or accompany a survivor to the emergency room for a forensic exam. Some shelters may partner with a local Family Justice Center, many of which perform forensic exams on site.
- Mobile advocacy. If a survivor can’t call or come to a shelter, an advocate may be able to meet a survivor at a neutral spot to provide support and resources.
- Children’s after-school programs. Many shelters will offer a childcare option for the children of survivors in their shelter after school. There may also be counseling and other programs to address childhood trauma.
- Teen advocacy programs. Shelters may have programs specifically designed to address teens’ trauma after escaping abuse.
- Transitional housing. Many domestic violence nonprofits have programs that help connect survivors with extended-stay housing options of 30 days or more.
- Transportation assistance. Many shelters help with transportation to get survivors to and from appointments, court or employment via bus pass vouchers or shuttles.
- Pet sheltering services. Some shelters have pet boarding on site while others work with local shelters or rescue groups to provide temporary fostering. This can even include larger animals like horses.
- Bilingual services. Most shelters should be able to accommodate non-English-speaking survivors with translation services.
- Court advocacy. Court advocates help survivors navigate the legal system, and shelters often have them on staff to assist survivors.
- Financial coaching. Since many abusers financially ruin survivors as a way to keep them trapped, rebuilding your financial independence is a must. Shelters will often be able to connect survivors to financial coaching to help them get a grasp on their money matters once again.
- Adult educational programs. Whether it’s to fulfill a personal goal, make a career change or achieve financial independence, many survivors want to continue their education. Your local shelter may be able to help. Some shelters offer matched savings for education; test prep assistance for GED, ACT, SAT or PSAT exams; job skills training; resume writing assistance; job search help or interview preparation.
- Parenting programs. Some shelters have programs to help survivor parents and caregivers address trauma with their children.
- Supervised visitation programs. For survivors who share custody with an abuser, shelters may be able to facilitate a safe meeting place for supervised visits. They may also offer to accompany survivors who need support when exchanging children.
- Community outreach. If a survivor feels like it would be healing to share their story with others in the community, many shelters offer outreach programs to help spread the word. Public speaking may be a vital part of your healing journey.
Remember, shelter is only one chapter in your story. But it can be a valuable means to an end, and you’ll be surrounded by people who understand what you’re going through. Looking forward to the future is an important part of healing. Read, “The Science of Hope” to learn more.
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