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Maybe a friend, coworker or loved one has told you they are experiencing domestic violence. Or you see signs of abuse in their relationship, even if they haven’t confided in you. You may not know what to say or how to help a victim of domestic violence. That's okay. Domestic violence is a difficult subject to broach for both victims and those who care for victims. But reaching out to someone experiencing domestic violence (also known as intimate partner violence or IPV) can act as a lifeline to someone suffering, who may feel alone, embarrassed, ashamed or frightened. Sincere, compassionate support is a crucial element to helping victims escape violence and work on building a better life. Your care can make a huge difference.
Here are some ideas about where and how to start helping a victim of domestic violence.
1. Resist the Urge to Say “Leave”
Your first thought may be to tell them to leave. After all, wouldn’t this be the obvious solution? While your heart is in the right place, telling them what to do isn’t the best way to help a victim of domestic abuse, especially one who’s likely been told what to do by an abuser for a lengthy period of time. Leaving is often the most dangerous time for a survivor and it’s rarely as simple of a decision as it seems. Only the survivor knows when it’s safest to go. Your friend is dealing with a challenging, possibly life-threatening situation, and your support, love and understanding are essential. It’s important they feel empowered to make that choice when they’re ready.
2. Believe Domestic Violence Survivors
If they’ve told you about the abuse, make sure to communicate that you believe them and you take the abuse seriously. You can say things like “You don’t deserve this,” “This is not your fault,” and “I believe you.” When it comes to how to help people experiencing abuse, your support can help them rebuild self-esteem and confidence. Your friend may say or do things you disagree with but listen unconditionally and nonjudgmentally. Let them make their own decisions—there may be things about their life they aren’t sharing with you that factor into what they feel capable of or safe doing.
Your friend may also be unsure if what they’re dealing with is abuse. Certain abusive tactics don’t always look like how we expect domestic violence to present. Coercive control, psychological abuse, financial control, sexual coercion, sleep deprivation and others can be confusing at first. Check out “Am I Being Abused?” for more and if it’s safe to do so, share this article with your friend
3. Connect Survivors With Domestic Violence Experts And Support
There are people and organizations out there who specialize in helping people like your friend. You can enter your friend’s ZIP code here to find local domestic violence advocates or shelters that can offer support. It might also be helpful for your friend to connect with counseling or mental health services so they can process their experience. You can research local providers and find someone with availability for them.
You may also want to recommend reading materials and resources. We’ve compiled a list of books that cover topics ranging from child custody to coercive control to sexual assault. These domestic violence podcasts may also help your friend understand what is happening and feel they aren’t alone in their struggles.
4. Help Victims Get Ready to Escape Abuse
The decision to leave a relationship isn’t easy. Your friend may still love and care for their partner, even though they want the abuse to stop. And, as we stated earlier, leaving can be the most dangerous time for a domestic violence survivor.
You can help a victim of domestic violence be prepared to leave when they feel the time is right. Help your friend create a safety plan and put together a safety bag full of the essentials they’ll need when they leave. Offer to keep the safety bag for them if they are afraid their partner might find it.
Set up a code word/phrase or signal they can use with you to confidentially let you know they’re in danger. For example, you could agree that if your friend calls or texts and asks to borrow your bicycle, that’s a sign that they need help. You could also use a physical signal, such as a light they can leave on if you live nearby, or an object such as a photo that’s visible in a video chat. If your friend signals that they need help, try asking “yes” or “no” questions to follow up since their partner may be monitoring them.
5. Take Care of Some Details and Logistics
Leaving a relationship is challenging even if people are parting amicably. Add abuse into the mix, and complications multiply. You can offer plans and options to help your friend escape when they are ready.
Your friend may be cut off from transportation. Ask if you can drive them to work or appointments or if they need rides for their children. Or offer to pay for taxis, Uber or Lyft.
Survivors don’t always have a safe place for their pets to stay when they leave, and they may not want their pets to be with the abuser. You can help by offering to care for pets during the transition time.
While shelters typically allow survivors and their children to stay for up to 90 days, your friend may need your help with childcare if they aren’t staying in a shelter or need medical care, or need to meet with a lawyer or look for permanent housing. Giving their children a safe and welcoming place to stay can alleviate a lot of their stress.
If it’s feasible, you can invite your friend to stay with you if they need a safe place to live. Of course, you might not have the space, or you may fear that your friend’s partner might come looking there. You can also help your friend find a domestic violence shelter or another safe haven.
6. Assist an Abuse Survivor Financially
It’s common for people facing domestic violence to be cut off from sources of income. Their partner may have prevented them from working and may block them from accessing bank accounts. And survivors may not want to use credit cards after they leave for fear of their partner tracking them down.
If you have the means, offer to give your friend money and/or provide a job opportunity. It can feel impossible for your friend to consider leaving without financial support. The Compensation Compass is a tool they may also want to check out. It connects survivors with funds that may be owed to them after abuse.
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7. Link Domestic Violence Survivors with Legal Support
Leaving a relationship can mean getting divorced and working out custody agreements, so your friend may need legal aid. You can help them get a protection order and connect them with an attorney or legal aid office. If you can afford it, help pay for legal services.
You can also accompany them to meetings with their lawyer and to court hearings and proceedings. And you can serve as a witness if you have information to share that could help your friend’s case.
8. Try to Be There for Victim-Survivors No Matter What
Ask your friend what you can do to help and remember that what they ask for might not be what you think they need. Your friend may make decisions you disagree with as they decide if, when and how to leave their partner. Support them anyway. And be sure to keep caring for your friend after they leave. The path to recovery can be long and slow. Having you by their side can make it a little bit easier.
Looking for someone to speak with? Enter your location to find phone numbers for domestic violence experts in your area.
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