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Abusers aim to throw survivors off-balance by exerting power and control at random times. Then again, because they often repeat their power and control tactics over and over, survivors often know that the next abusive episode is likely just around the corner.
A safety plan is a form of protection that allows a survivor to prepare what they can do during or between abusive incidents to keep themselves and their children safe. This might involve how they can escape, where they can go, who they can rely on to help them and the additional protections they can put in place to possibly stay gone for good.
The Call to Consider Making First
It might be difficult to see the level of danger a survivor is in while they’re in the midst of abuse. Consider calling a local domestic violence hotline and ask an advocate to help you create a safety plan. They may also be also to walk you through risk assessments, talk about shelter options and provide other local resources such as support groups and lay legal help should you need to go to court. Remember, you can call a hotline even if you’re not ready to leave.
A Survivor Knows Their Situation Best
We’ve said it many times before on DomesticShelters.org, but only the survivor knows when it’s safest to leave an abuser. Therefore, a safety plan may not be the permanent escape plan. It may be the leave-for-right-now plan, and that’s OK. Ideally, every survivor would live a life without abuse, but we understand that this takes careful planning, especially because leaving an abuser is notoriously the most dangerous time for a survivor.
Creating a Safety Plan
Step 1: Gather Evidence
In safety planning, the idea is that once you get away from an abuser, you may want to get an order of protection, press charges, file for divorce or file for custody of your children. You may also have pets that you want to make sure you can retain as well. In all these instances, having proof of the abuse is only going to help you.
“Victims have a tough time being believed,” says Giugi Carminati, JD, attorney, activist and author of the blog Argue Like a Girl. “They’re often accused of suffering the after-effects of abuse—things like cognitive impairment, memory problems and paranoia—and their testimony can be called into question as a result.”
Evidence that can help you can include:
- Copies of police reports
- Medical records detailing injuries or stress-related diagnoses
- Photos or videos of any injuries or damage caused by abuser
- Screenshots of abusive or threatening text messages or emails, or recordings of threatening voicemails or conversations
- A journal tracking days, times, locations and details of abusive incidents, physical and nonphysical
Step 2: Pack a Bag and Hide It
If you need to leave in a hurry, you may not have time to collect your things. You may need to simply run out the door. If possible, pack a bag with daily necessities, important documents, ideally some cash and things that your children and pets will need and store it at a friend’s house, your place of work or somewhere else that your abusive partner won’t find it.
Items you may want to consider packing include:
- Birth certificates and social security cards for yourself and your children
- Driver’s license and/or passports
- W2s and paystubs
- Work permits
- Government benefits card
- Green card or immigration papers
- Marriage, divorce and custody papers
- Legal protection or restraining orders and records of any police reports you have filed
- Health insurance cards and medical records
- Your children’s school records
- Immunization records
- Financial records and bank account numbers
- Apartment rental agreement or lease, or house deed
- Car title, registration, and insurance documentation
Tip: Keep photos of these documents in a secure digital file. In some cases, photos will be sufficient proof of documentation, and in other cases, the photos will make it easier for you to replace the document if you need to leave without it.
- Cash and prepaid credit cards that can’t be traced
- Credit cards and the PIN numbers you need to withdraw cash
- ATM card
- Small valuables you could sell if need be
- A post office box or safe address where you can forward your mail
- Phone calling card
- Prepaid cell phone or a cell phone with a new contract and number
- Your address book or cell phone contacts
Tip: If possible, secure new doctors, dentists, orthodontists, veterinarians, schools and other locations for yourself, your children and your pets so your abusive partner can’t find you in those places and make a list of the contact information for each to take with you.
- Current medications and prescriptions for yourself and your children
- Eyeglasses, contact lenses, hearing aids and any other medical devices you or your children need
- Pets, their records, and any needed items like food, a leash, bedding and medication
- Small toys or books for your children
- Any keepsakes you would like to have
Tip: Leave a spare set of car keys with someone you trust in case the abuser takes yours to try to prevent you from leaving.
Step 3: Think of Where You Can go
The next time you feel things start to escalate, or the next time you have a window of opportunity to leave without the abuser around, plan where you can go. This could be:
- An emergency shelter (which will need advance notice, so contact an advocate there). Read “I Stayed at a Domestic Violence Shelter” to hear one woman’s account of what it was like to go with her and her children. And yes, many shelters will accommodate pets, either at the shelter or by offering a nearby [free] boarding service until you can find a permanent safe place. Read “Planning for Pet Safety” for steps to take to keep your furry family members safe, too.
- A friend or family member’s house that the abuser doesn’t know the location of or is far enough away that it will be difficult for the abuser to get to you (just make sure you know the custody laws in your state if you take the children across state lines)
- If feasible, a hotel or apartment that you pay for with cash so the abuser cannot track you there.
Speaking of tracking, keep in mind that if you have a cell phone, the abuser may be able to trace your location, so consider getting a pay-as-you-go temporary phone and leaving your cell behind.
Step 4: Imagine Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios
In the best-case scenario, the survivor escapes the abuser, press charges, the abuser goes to jail for a long time and never bothers the survivor again and the survivor begins a new, safe, healthy life. (Yes, this can happen.)
But in less-than-ideal scenarios, the abuser will use tactics they’ve used before to ramp up control if they suspect the survivor is planning to leave. When an abuser feels like they are losing control, it is often the most dangerous time for a survivor. Prepare for this by thinking out different scenarios that could happen and what you will do. For example, if an abuser always shuts the bedroom door to close you in before he or she becomes violent, can you unlock a window ahead of time, given you’re on the ground floor, and exit through it when this starts? If an abuser threatens to keep or harm your children or pets if you leave, can you make sure they’re in a safe place before you leave, such as taking them to a trusted relative’s house? Can you create a code word that, if you say it in front of your children, they’ll know to run next door to the neighbor’s house and call 911?
For more tips on safety plans that involve your children, read “Safety Planning With Your Kids.”
Step 5: Plan for the Next Day
After a survivor leaves an abusive partner, or the abuser is forced to leave a shared home (in the case of being arrested, for instance, or in the rare case of a kick-out order), survivors need to stay vigilant to ensure their safety. Read, “Will My Partner Be Violent After I Leave?” to learn more about warning signs that your partner could increase their violence after leaving. Then, consider taking the following steps:
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- Secure an order of protection that will give police a reason to arrest the abuser if they try to contact, find or stalk you.
- Alert your place of employment and your children’s school and give them a photo of the abuser to they can alert you if he or she comes around.
- Vary your routes to and from school or work, and if possible, change up your schedule and routine. If you always visit the same coffee shop and the same grocery store, change it so that it’s not as easy for the abuser to locate you.
- Take a break from social media to give the abuser less opportunity to track or harass you.
- Change your phone number and hide your mailing address.
- Plan your response if the abuser reaches out with promises to change or threats if you don’t return. It may be that going strict no-contact will be the best option for you. In the case of threats, record each one and, if there is a restraining order in place, report each one.
- Always know you can reach out to an advocate for help or support anytime you’re feeling uncertain or scared.
Consider Your Emotional Safety, Also
Leaving an abusive partner can be a big change. Relying on oneself and possibly adjusting to a new environment can be stressful and disorienting, even if, logically, you feel safer.
“People go through a period of shock, and they need time to adjust,” says Maria Garay-Serratos, CEO of Sojourner Center, a domestic violence shelter in Phoenix, Ariz. “They’ve made the most courageous decision they ever have to make in their lives.” Moving forward “is a lifetime healing journey, and it’s very individual,” she says.
It may be helpful to go through this four-step emotional safety plan that can help you address the trauma you endured, understand the mix of emotions that may arise and find adequate support.
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