A safety plan is an essential tool for abuse victims to organize their thoughts and implement decisions for a better future. As discussed in last month’s blog post, “Why It’s Not Always Safe/Right to Leave an Abuser”, abusive relationships can be complicated, with many facets to consider. Whether victims decide to stay with, plan to leave, or have already left an abuser, a safety plan can help them reduce risk and increase their wellbeing. It can be useful for identifying and mitigating circumstances where physical abuse is more likely, but safety planning is not limited to reducing/avoiding violence. It involves all aspects of safety, from basic human necessities such as food and shelter, to financial stability and digital security, to mental and physical health, to a support system of loved ones and community resources. Safety plans will differ based on the individual victim, others involved (e.g. abuser, children, friends, family), events, locations, available community support, health, immigration status, etc. Each person’s safety plan is unique and will likely change over time.
There are so many facets to safety planning, this will be a two-part topic! This month we will go through basic aspects of a safety plan. Then, we’ll continue next month by discussing various situations and unique considerations that may affect safety planning.
Understanding & Identifying
When beginning to safety plan, victims need to think through both the abuser-generated and the life-generated concerns they face or could face in their specific situation. In what ways is their abuser controlling? In relationships that are violent, they likely know particular circumstances or warning signs of oncoming abuse. What are some things they already do or say that help deescalate crisis situations? Identifying patterns, triggers, and understanding what may make things worse and better for them is the first step toward mitigating abuse. It may be helpful for them to talk things out with a friend, family member, or domestic violence advocate.
In order to develop the safety plan that will work best for them, victims should also recognize other aspects of life that may be affected by the abuse or could be altered should they choose to leave their abuser. Do they have their own income and/or the ability to support themselves and any children? What is best for the children? Are there health issues or cultural/spiritual beliefs to consider? They should determine what is most important to them and what are the biggest risks and prioritize those factors when safety planning.
Victims can use what they have identified about their personal concerns and risks to figure out ways to increase their wellbeing. Is leaving the safest option for them? Victims who determine it is best for them to stay with or return to their abuser can still attempt to prevent or mitigate further abuse. While safety is the ultimate goal, a safer situation may be the first step along that path. What can they adjust in their home or lifestyle to reduce risk? Who can they reach out to for help? Does it make sense to apply for a restraining order? Implementing smaller, more manageable changes can help build victims’ strength and break down abusers’ control. Victims can research options for resources and advocates in the community so that they have the information whenever/if ever they decide to take advantage of it.
There are several things victims can do to help reduce their risk of bodily injury from physically abusive partners. Especially for victims who live with their abusers, a safety plan may include a detailed study of their residence and its contents. Knowing which rooms have windows through which any violence might be seen by people outside or through which they could escape, the best route out of the home from different rooms, where items are kept that could easily be used as weapons, and the safest room(s) to get to in a crisis can help reduce risk in physical altercations. Victims may wish to create a “safe” room in which they move or hide potentially dangerous items and remove screens from windows for easy exit. Hiding themselves behind items of sentimental or monetary value (family heirlooms, TV, computer) may deter some abusers from risking damage to these objects by going after the victim. If bodily harm is unavoidable, victims should protect vital organs by tucking knees and head into their chest and covering their neck with their arms. Getting into a corner or against a wall can help shield parts of their body. Keeping their cell phone charged and on their person makes it easier to call for help if they wish to.
Building Support & Independence
Abusers often employ the tactic of isolating their victims. They cut them off from friends and family, sowing discord and distrust, or making their victim feel too ashamed to confide in loved ones. Victims can break this isolation by reaching out to those they care about, making new friends, or speaking with advocates and other community advisors. If possible, maintaining a job outside the home and their own vehicle can ensure victims have the expectation and ability to leave the house regularly and interact with others. Attending a class, club, and/or support group without their abuser’s knowledge is a good way for victims to incorporate more personal contact into their lives and to gain skills and assistance that can benefit them should they choose to leave.
It can be a good idea for victims to keep a record of controlling and violent incidents by their abusers. This may take the form of a journal or log detailing what happened, when, and where, threats made, weapons used, etc. It’s also a good idea to save texts, emails, voicemails, and written notes from abusers. Photographing things like injuries and property damage and pulling footage from security cameras can also be helpful. They should be sure to check state privacy laws before recording or photographing someone else, though. Massachusetts is a two-party consent state, so everyone involved must be informed of the recording. However, it is then up to each individual to leave the encounter should they not wish to be recorded (DMLP).
These records may be important evidence in obtaining a restraining order and in criminal prosecution or civil custody cases. They can also assist victims in identifying patterns and triggers to avoid. Looking back through everything that has happened can help victims determine when or if they want to leave their abuser. Either way, it can be a useful tool for them to refer to when sharing their experiences with others. In cases of gaslighting, records can shore up a victim’s confidence in their memories and interpretations. Learn more about gaslighting in our July 2021 post, “Fostering Self-Doubt: The Manipulative Abuse of Gaslighting”. In order to keep abusers from discovering these records, however, it may be a good idea for victims to keep them at work or with a trusted loved one. Always prioritize safety over documenting.
Having a plan about what to do in an emergency can help victims quickly remove themselves from a dangerous situation. This may involve determining who they could call for help, figuring out a safe place they can go (hotel, loved one’s home, shelter), and having essential items handy (cash, keys, etc.). Removing potential weapons or making them difficult to get to and working out a visual signal or code word with a trusted friend or neighbor to get help can reduce risk in threatening encounters. They can increase readiness to escape by parking their car where it is easy to leave, keeping a full tank of gas, keeping their cell phone fully charged, and packing an emergency kit. Rehearsing scenarios for a quick exit or the route to a safe place works toward making the reaction second nature during the stress of an actual crisis.
An emergency kit is a pre-packed collection of essential and useful items a victim may need if they decided to or were forced to leave their abuser suddenly. It may be a good idea to keep this kit where the abuser won’t find it: hidden but easily accessible at home or in their car, at a trusted friend or family member’s house, or in a secure third-party location their abuser doesn’t have access to such as a gym locker or storage unit. Below is a list of items that are a good idea to include in an emergency kit. Not all of them will apply to every victim and victims may have additional essential items that do not appear on this list. If children are involved, victims should pack these items for themselves and for the children, whenever applicable.
Creating a Safety Plan
There are many example safety plans, worksheets, and interactive guides available online to help victims get started. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a step-by-step planning tool available here. Women in Transition, Inc. has developed an extensive and informative guide to help victims recognize and think through different controlling behaviors, risks, and the best way to increase their safety. It also includes planning for emergencies and if they decide to leave. Click here for that downloadable/printable PDF. The National Family Violence Institute has created a Visual Safety Plan, which uses images to make planning more accessible for those with limited English (the minimal written text is also available in 10 languages). For those concerned about extreme or lethal physical abuse, a danger assessment tool can help evaluate their risk and determine aspects of their safety plan. While using somewhat dated and gendered language, this worksheet is still a good example of a danger assessment.
Considering these factors and developing individual strategies to reduce risk and explore options is the crux of safety planning. It may be something victims do privately, or they may ask for help with some or all elements. DVSN Advocates (and those of many other organizations) are readily available to guide victims through the safety planning process and/or to provide additional resources and support should they desire assistance. While this post has discussed general aspects of safety planning, there are circumstances that may require special considerations. Victims may need to take into account children and/or pets, health or immigration concerns, financial and technological abuse issues, and safety in specific locations, such as the workplace or courtroom. Check in again next month for details on safety planning for these situations and more!
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