If you are getting ready to leave an abuser, you’ll need to plan for the safety and care of your children during your departure. As you start planning and pack what you need, based on the age and maturity level of your children, you can decide how much to involve them in the safety plan.
Babies, toddlers and preschoolers
Survivors who are leaving abusers and who have very young children will undoubtedly take the children with them when they escape. These children aren’t old enough to participate in or understand a safety plan. But toddlers and preschoolers should still be assured that they are safe. Bring comfort items from home, if possible, when escaping to a shelter or other temporary living arrangement.
If you plan on taking the children out of state, make sure you understand the laws of your state regarding child custody, to make sure you can’t be accused of parental kidnapping. It’s best to talk to a lawyer if you plan on leaving the state with your children, without your partner knowing. For more precautions on leaving your partner with your children, read, “Fleeing an Abuser With Your Children.”
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Survivors with school-age children can start to involve them in safety plans, but giving them too much detail is not a good idea. “Younger children can’t really do secrets. A little kid might be walking [with an abuser] and say, ‘This is where I’m supposed to wait for Mommy.’ They are trusting,” says Susan Bernstein, a MA-based licensed social worker and marriage and family therapist with expertise in domestic violence.
And abusers are skilled at manipulating children. They can make children believe that abuse is normal, or not that serious. They can convince the child that life is better with them in it. “They’ll say, ‘Who’s going to buy groceries,’ ‘Who’s going to buy you candy?’ or ‘Don’t you want Mom to be happy?’” Bernstein says. So you can’t necessarily trust younger children not to share information with abusers.
What can kids in this age group handle? They can learn general safety tips without connecting those tips to domestic violence. You can teach them a safety code word that can be used in dangerous situations in general. For example, if your word is “giraffe,” you could teach your child to say something like, “We’re having fun. We just watched a show about a giraffe,” if they call you from a play date and the situation feels unsafe. And you could also teach them that you might use the code word to signal to them that they should call 911, without specifically mentioning an abusive situation that might trigger that call.
With children in this age group, if it’s feasible, when you plan your departure you can involve another trusted person to help transition them to a safe place as they leave school. Consider adding one or two people to the list of those allowed to pick up your child after school.
“That could be an older child who can be trusted, a family friend, an aunt or uncle, or a DCF worker,” says Bernstein. “You have to decide in a thoughtful and wise way who is going to be included, so the child has a supervised transition into the safety plan.”
Middle schoolers and older kids
Older kids may be able to handle additional information. Survivors are best able to judge if their children are mature enough be trusted with details of the safety plan. Bernstein points out that an 11-year-old who’s been to overnight camp might be more self-reliant, while a middle schooler who has never walked home from school alone might not be able to manage on their own in a stressful situation.
If you feel your child is old enough, you can share more details, like the reason you have a safety code word and an exit plan. With older kids, you may be able to put a plan in place and rely on them to follow it without an adult’s help. For example, you can identify a safe home or location and tell your child that if they receive a text, call or message from you then they need to go there without question. Older children might also be able to help escort and comfort younger siblings. Walk through the plan with them and make sure they know the route to their safe location, since emotions will likely be running high when you put your plan in place.
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You may need to remind older kids that it’s not their job to protect you from abuse.
“It’s usually the adult who is getting most of the abuse, and an older child might want to be a buffer,” Bernstein says. “Tell them, ‘I can’t be at my best if you’re in danger’.” Older children need to understand that they need to go to the designated place and you will meet them there, even if that means leaving you with the abuser.
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