May 1, 2020

Safety Planning In An Abusive Relationship

Prevention at Home Video Education Series

YWCA Spokane staff have joined together to create a unique online engagement opportunity focused on cultivating increased community education and awareness surrounding issues related to intimate partner domestic violence (IPDV). The 11-part video series presents engaging, educational content for individuals from any background or knowledge level.

The videos and blog posts also offer an opportunity to get to know YWCA Spokane advocates on a personal level; each contributor brings their own personality into their writing and presentation style.

Each topic within the series has its own blog post and a video. All of the other topics in the series are linked below. As you watch and read, we hope you will gain more knowledge, explore topics you may not have been exposed to, and empower yourself and those around to be in healthier, happier relationships. Thank you for taking the time to further your education, awareness, and understanding surrounding these critical issues. 


Safety Planning

 

Hey there! My name is Brit and I work for YWCA Spokane’s Alternatives to Domestic Violence Program. While we all have different and very important roles at the YWCA, one thing that many of us do is help folks create safety plans. Safety plans, or as we often like to call them, safer plans, are a toolbox of resources and knowledge that a person can use to help them through an unsafe situation. These plans can be made on one’s own, but it is usually helpful to recruit others–such as hotline workers, advocates, mental health professionals, or trusted friends and family. 

We refer to them as safer plans because there is often, unfortunately, no way to guarantee a person’s safety from an abuser. I believe it’s important to make this distinction upfront: no one is responsible for stopping the abuse but the abuser. Victims and survivors have the right to try to make themselves and their families as safe as possible, but they are ultimately not to blame if the abuse continues. Even if someone has left an abuser, it is not guaranteed that the abuse will end. People often come to us to continue making safety plans even once the relationship with the abuser has ended; because the abuser’s need for power and control often does not end at the divorce or breakup. 

Safety plans can and usually do change over time. There is no one-size-fits-all safer plan. Every situation is unique and there are often multiple barriers at play. However, I thought it might be useful to compile some common safer planning considerations that can be used as a starting point. The following will be broken up into several sections:

  • Interacting with an Abuser
  • Planning to Leave
  • Stalking
  • Co-Parenting

This guide can be used to help make your own safer plan, but it can also be great information for folks who might need to help someone else make one. 

Interacting with an Abuser
There are many reasons a survivor might need to be in contact with their abuser. Maybe they still live with them, are financially dependent on them, share children with them, or just haven’t gotten to a place where we can safely cut contact. Whatever the reason, here are some basic things to start considering:

Know the layout of the space and/or the abuser’s tendencies. Having a grasp of the physical and psychological layout of a situation can be very helpful. Some abusers will purposefully be unpredictable in order to make it harder to keep up with them, but if there are any patterns, you’ve likely already noticed them. Some helpful questions to ask to get the ball rolling:

  • Where are the exits? 
  • Do any of the doors lock? 
  • Which rooms have multiple entrances and exits? 
  • Are there any weapons or things that could be used as weapons? 
  • Does this person tend to use certain intimidation tactics? 
  • Can you tell when things are about to “blow up?”

Communicating with neighbors/safe people nearby can also be helpful. Some abusers are so controlling that their victims are not allowed to have any contact with others. But if it’s safe to, communicate with the people who live near you. Even if you can’t tell them about the abuse, you can let them know you exist. This can serve multiple purposes: making you feel less alone, and giving more opportunity to ask for help if needed. 

One technique I’ve seen used by many survivors is a safe word system. This can be adapted to a person’s individual needs, but here are some examples:

  • Having a code word you can text to a safe friend or family member. Talk to them about what the word means. It can be anything from “I need you to call me/check on me” to “I need you to call the police for me.”
  • Have a signal with your neighbors, like a certain light being flickered, a hand signal, or if they’re close enough (especially in living situations like dorms, apartment buildings, or trailer parks) yelling a certain word.
  • Having a safe word with the children in your home. The purpose can range from “I need you to stay in your room” to “we need to go to the car now.”

If there is a safe way to document incidents of abuse, it can be very helpful down the road. Documentation can be used to bolster legal documents, like protection orders or parenting plans. You can choose to document on your own, and you can also ask others to document for you. For example, if you have an ER visit for an injury due to domestic violence, you can ask that it be specifically noted that way.* 

It can also serve as an emotional and mental support tool. If there is gaslighting happening in the relationship, we are likely to question our own memories and judgment. If we leave the relationship, it is very normal to question if we correctly remember the severity of the abuse. Having documentation to look back on can help a person feel grounded. 

Planning to Leave
There are many safety considerations when leaving an abuser. It is very normal for a person to have to try to leave their abuser multiple times, and it can often be the most risky time for a survivor. It can be difficult to make or remember plans when our brains are in fight-or flight mode, but planning ahead can make a huge difference. Some practical things to consider:

  • Start stowing things away slowly. Is there a safe place in your home or car to hide things? Can you give them to a trusted neighbor, friend, or family member?
  • Remember to gather any important documents you might need. Some examples: social security cards, birth certificates, documentation for animals, visas or immigration documents, financial documents
  • If possible, consider opening a bank account on your own. Preferably at a completely separate bank. If that isn’t possible, consider asking someone you trust to hold onto funds for you.
  • Clue in your safe people. This can be people in your personal life or professionals you work with, like doctors or counselors.*

Stalking
Abusers often employ stalking both during and after a relationship. This can be in-person or digital. Stalking is a very difficult thing to navigate, and often even harder to prove. Some basic tools for dealing with an abuser who uses stalking:

  • If possible, randomly change routes when traveling to places you usually go.
  • Change your locks and phone number.
  • Ask your phone service provider if your phone number can appear as “blocked.” There are also various texting apps that can make it more challenging for someone to track your phone number
  • Check on your social media account settings. What are your privacy settings set to? Would it be safe to block your abuser? Do you still have friends in common, and is that safe?
  • Many states have a confidential address program that an advocate can help you sign up for. This gives you a fake address that you can use for various purposes, like receiving mail or your driver’s license.
  • Document, document, document. Stalking is a notoriously difficult crime to prove, and can easily make us feel crazy or overwhelmed. Keeping track of incidents related to the stalking can help us feel more grounded to reality and can potentially make prosecution or attainment of legal orders easier.

Co-Parenting
Sharing children with an abuser is a common reality for survivors of intimate partner violence. It can be challenging to figure out how to take care of kiddos and ourselves, and to stay safe and relatively sane while doing it. Some common things I’ve seen parent survivors do:

  • Alert schools, daycare, or child care. If you have separated from the abuser, and the abuser is not allowed to pick up children, let them know. If there is a specific schedule, let them know when the other parent should be picking them up and dropping them off. They may ask to see copies of legal documents where relevant.
  • Many legal documents regarding children, such as parenting plans and restraining orders, will require your residential address to be listed, even if you are enrolled in something like a confidential address program.
  • Have a safety talk with kiddos. Let them know enough to stay safe. If you are already having safety talks with your children, you can simply extend it to include planning for incidents involving the abuser. If you haven’t, this is a great way to initiate safety conversations! Children are more observant than we often give them credit for, and chances are they have already noticed that things are different. It’s ok to acknowledge that, and let them know that we are here for them. Some talking points for safety conversations with kiddos:
    • Who are our safe adults?
    • Where are our safe places?
    • What do we do when we don’t feel safe?
    • Who can we go to if parents/safe parents aren’t around?
    • What are you worried about, and how can I help?

As you can see, there can be a lot of elements involved in safety planning. Staying safe while in an abusive relationship, leaving an abusive relationship, or after an abusive relationship presents new and evolving challenges. Please remember that there are people out there who can help, and that no one is alone in their experiences of abuse. Abuse is not the fault of the abused, but there are some concrete steps a victim or survivor can try if they choose. It’s also important to note that during times of larger crisis, such as the coronavirus pandemic that is happening as I write this, access to resources could be even more limited and widespread isolation practices can cause further chance of risk.

* If you choose to talk to a professional, such as an advocate, therapist, or medical professional, it may be helpful to verify mandated reporting laws in your state. In Washington, for example, most of those people will be mandated reporters in cases of child abuse or neglect, elder abuse, or abuse of vulnerable adults. However, one adult abusing another adult is not a mandated report in Washington. They are not obligated to report domestic violence itself to law enforcement, and you can ask them not to.


Written content and video for this topic within the Prevention at Home series provided by YWCA Spokane staff member, Brit Wilson.


Continue Learning with Prevention at Home!

Explore more topics on your journey empowering yourself and those around you by visiting the following blog posts and watching the other videos in our prevention at home series.

  1. Services at YWCA Spokane
  2. What is Intimate Partner Domestic Violence
  3. Red Flags and the Relationship Spectrum
  4. Respect, Boundaries, and Consent
  5. Teen Domestic Violence
  6. Why Do They Stay or Go Back
  7. Trauma and the Brain
  8. Safety Planning
  9. Self Care
  10. Self Regulation
  11. How to Help a Friend

External Resources for Continuing Education

YWCA Spokane staff members have collected the following external links for you to further your education.


YWCA SPOKANE IS HERE FOR YOU

If you or someone you know is impacted by intimate partner domestic violence, confidential advocates are available through our 24hr helpline services by calling 509-326-2255, emailing help@ywcaspokane.org, or texting 509-220-3725. 

To learn about additional services through YWCA Spokane during the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit ywcaspokane.org/services.

By: Mia Morton

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