Safety planning for domestic violence victims and survivors is such a vast and individual topic, we broke it out into two companion blog posts. Last month’s post, “Safety Planning: Reducing Risk & Exploring Options”, outlined the basic facets of a safety plan. This month’s post will build on that foundation to discuss some common situations where special considerations apply when developing a safety plan. The best course of action for each person depends on many things, including their economic circumstances, health, dependents, where they go, and their support network. How they make decisions and how they act will be impacted by these factors. Let’s look at how victims’ safety planning may be affected by the following situations.

Safety Planning with Children

For victims who have children, safety planning takes on the added complexity of not only what is best for them, but what is best for their children. Depending on the maturity of their children, it is a good idea to give children suggestions for how to keep themselves safe and stay out of altercations. Victims can teach older children (or plan with them) when, how, and who to call (police, family member, neighbor) and/or a safe place to go (room with a lock, trusted neighbor’s home) in a crisis. They can come up with activities to help calm children during and/or after an emergency situation. Children may not understand what is happening and should not be blamed if they try to protect either parent or tell the abuser about the victim’s precautions and plans. When deciding how to best to keep their children safe, it is important to consider what they will do should the children tell their abuser about aspects of their safety plan.

If a victim leaves or plans to leave their abuser, it is probable they will need to deal with not only how to bring their children with them or keep them safe through that process, but also how to co-parent with their abuser afterwards. Some co-parenting strategies may include meeting the abuser in public places, bringing a trusted cohort when seeing their abuser, finding someone who can act as a go-between so they do not have to meet their abuser in person, or arranging other no-contact exchanges (such as one parent dropping the kids off at school and the other picking them up). Establishing guidelines for communication, including method (calls, texts, emails, in person, through an intermediary, etc.), frequency (when and how often communication makes sense), and topics (regarding the children only, for example) can help keep discussions to what is strictly necessary for their children’s welfare.

Safety Planning During Pregnancy

Pregnancy is the second most dangerous time in an abusive relationship (National DV Hotline). Abuse can begin or escalate during this time of change, added stressors, reduced focus on the abuser, and increased emotions. Keeping their unborn child safe can present new difficulties for pregnant victims. Those with physically abusive partners should attempt to avoid more dangerous areas of the house, such as stairs, bathrooms with hard surfaces and tight spaces, and kitchens full of knives and other weapon-like utensils. If violence is unavoidable, curling into the fetal position and wrapping arms around the belly can help protect both the victim and their pregnancy.

Doctors and prenatal instructors can be helpful in safety planning to discuss specific pregnancy concerns. Victims should be aware that these professionals may be mandated reporters of domestic violence. If there is a concern about mandated reporting, victims can ask a question as a hypothetical situation without identifying themselves or their children as victims. If the abuser accompanies the victim to visits with these professionals, victims can come up with an excuse to talk one-on-one with them, try to find a moment to express this desire to the care professional or their staff, and/or search out a prenatal class that does not include partners.

Safety Planning with Pets

Pets are often beloved family members whose safety victims are highly concerned about. They may be reluctant to leave their abusers if they feel they cannot take their pets with them, fearing the pets will not be cared for or will be abused in their absence or as retaliation for their leaving. Pets often experience violence similarly to people. As many as 65% of domestic violence victims decide not to leave their abusive situations because of worry about their pets (National DV Hotline). Safety plans can include pets. Victims can update and change their pets’ license and vaccine records to ensure their name is listed as owner. They may talk with friends, family, veterinarians, animal shelters, and/or boarding facilities to see who may be able to care for their pet if they choose to leave their abuser and cannot take the animal(s) with them. There are services that specifically assist domestic violence survivors with caring for their pets. 

If they are able to take their animals with them, it is important to bring the necessary provisions for their pets—medical and legal records relating their to the pets and information about their veterinarian. Survivors may wish to change to a vet their abuser does not know about and remove their abuser’s access and contact information from any microchip services. The majority of states, including Massachusetts, allow pets to specifically be included on restraining orders. If victims must leave their pets with their abusers when leaving, animal control or other local services may be able to intervene afterward to remove the pet(s) from the abuser.

Financial Safety Planning

Almost all abusive relationships involve some form of financial abuse. Learn more in DVSN’s August 2021 blog post, “The Big-Picture Economic Impact of Domestic Violence”. Money issues are a major factor that keep victims under the control of their abusers. Planning for financial independence is an important part of a safety plan, especially for those who choose to leave. It can be helpful for victims to keep cash handy for emergency situations. If their abuser controls and/or monitors their accounts, victims can save small amounts from known purchases, such as groceries. It may be safer to keep their savings outside the home, with a friend or family member or in a separate bank account that their abuser doesn’t know about. Victims with access to joint accounts may wish to withdraw half the funds (75% if they have children with them) and change all direct deposits and PIN numbers immediately after deciding to leave. Documenting how they spend any of these funds can be helpful to any future legal proceedings.

Technological Safety Planning

It is disturbingly easy for abusers to monitor, control, and manipulate technology that is now essential for communication, information, and other aspects of daily life. It is important to be careful what they search for online, send in texts and emails, post on social media, and even what they say on phone calls. Abusers can install apps on cell phones to track their victim’s location and/or communications. They can look up internet search histories and see if their victims are looking for resources to help them leave. They can control access to phones, computers, etc., isolating their victims from support and information. This is not only an invasion of privacy, but also an effective means of control which has the potential to be extremely dangerous for victims.

While it is nearly impossible to fully protect oneself from technological abuse, victims can reduce risk by deleting search histories, browsing in “incognito”/”private” mode, using a VPN, turning off Bluetooth when not in use, using a public computer (in a library, internet café, etc.), setting up innocuous signals with friends to ask for help without seeming to do so, and turning off location services to cell phones. If they decide to leave their abuser, it’s a good idea to immediately change all their passwords, consider deleting their social media profiles or at least “unfriend”/block their abuser and set profiles to private, switch joint/shared accounts to private ones, search for and delete any unknown apps on all devices, and consider whether they need to get new devices, phone numbers, and/or email addresses. Look out for a future post delving further into this topic!

Workplace Safety Planning

The workplace is a location where abusers know their victim will regularly be. If they are comfortable doing so, advising their employer and/or colleagues of the abuse may help increase victims’ safety at work. Providing a photograph can help them identify the abuser for those who have never met them. Employers may be able to ensure abusers do not have access to the building and alert any security guards to be on the lookout. There may be the possibility to transfer to a different desk, department, shift, and/or work site, to change phone extensions, or to block/screen/reroute phone calls to make it more difficult for the abuser to reach the victim. Giving employers a copy of any restraining orders can help them understand the severity of the situation and what the abuser is legally prohibited from doing. Colleagues can make sure victims are not alone when going out for lunch or walking to their car/public transport when arriving and departing the workplace. When possible, having another person nearby can help minimize incidents at work even if the victim does not tell anyone their situation, as abusers often do not want others to witness their abuse.

Student Safety Planning

While there are certainly some notable differences, many aspects of safety planning are the same for both high school and college student abuse victims. Both need to consider when and where they are likely to encounter their abuser on school campus. Changing and varying their routes between classes and walking with fellow students can help minimize contact with their abuser. It is worth considering who they could inform about the abuse to increase their safety, from friends to teachers to guidance counselors, school officials, roommates, resident advisors, and campus security/police, keeping in mind some of these people may be mandated reporters. The school may be able to adjust victims’ schedules to make it more difficult for their abusers to find them. For high school students, the school may be able to swap their locker and lunch time and make accommodations for arriving and departing school. For college students living in a dorm, there may be measures the school can take to change victims’ accommodations and/or prevent the abuser from entering the building. Victims may choose to alter their social routines as well, choosing new locations to go out and not going out alone.

Disability & Health Issue Safety Planning

Victims with health issues or disabilities often face additional hurdles as victims of abuse. Abusers may be caregivers with more control over their lives than those without significant health/disability concerns. Victims may be reliant on their abuser to assist them in daily life, provide or administer medication, or other complications that prevent them from changing their situation even if they want to. They could consider the ways in which they rely on their abuser to maintain their health and mobility and who else may be able to step into that role or how they could adapt to become more independent. Unfortunately, some domestic violence agencies may not be equipped to help victims with specialized needs. Health professionals could be valuable in determining what is possible, making suggestions, and providing resources. There may be community organizations that could provide adaptive devices and/or care providers at little or no cost.

Immigrant Safety Planning

For immigrants, there are likely additional ties to their abuser that make it more difficult to leave. Whether or not it is truly the case, they may feel that their ability to stay in the country is dependent on their marriage to their abuser or their employment by/with their abuser. Limited proficiency in English may complicate their understanding of their legal status as well as their ability to seek assistance. They may be unfamiliar with the laws, cultural practices, and available resources in the United States. Immigrants are typically far from friends and family and may feel extremely isolated without support. They are often dependent on their abuser for most aspects of daily life, and their abuser may control their official documents. However, there are avenues they can pursue.

If the abuser is in immigrant, legal measures such as restraining orders may be extra effective, given they may influence the abuser’s own ability to stay in the country. Restraining orders may be granted whether or not the couple have separated. Additionally, even without leaving their abuser, immigrant victims can petition for lawful permanent residency separate from their abuser through provisions in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA also has provisions for suspension of deportation and residency filings for undocumented immigrants married to abusive citizens or legal permanent residents (VAWnet). Victims of crimes, including domestic violence, may also be eligible for a U-Visa, which provides temporary residency with the ability to work and the potential for permanent residency later on.

Court Safety Planning

If a victim decides to use the legal system to help protect themselves through a restraining order, prosecution, and/or divorce, they are likely to encounter their abuser in court. There is no need to look at or speak with the abuser or any friends,  family, or lawyers they brought with them. Before proceedings, attempt to find a private/separate waiting area away from the abuser. If there is a choice of seating within the courtroom, victims can sit as far from their abuser as possible. Bringing a friend, family member, or domestic violence advocate with them can help lend support to the victim and discourage their abuser from direct contact. If they fear their abuser will try something, they may decide to inform the bailiff that they are afraid and ask them to be extra vigilant. They can also request that the judge or court officer keep the abuser in court for a period after proceedings or for an escort to their transportation to allow the victim to leave without risk of interaction outside the courtroom.

Safety Planning for Traveling

Vacations and holidays can be especially stressful times, which can lead to an increase in incidents when traveling with abusers. Checking if their current health coverage will be accepted in their destination and buying travel insurance or additional riders may be necessary to ensure victims will be covered for medical help if needed. They can also research local emergency care facilities and places they can receive care without insurance. When preparing to travel abroad, victims may make a point to look up the local emergency phone number and a basic phrase to request help in the local language. They may wish to research local rights and options for health care, community resources, and alternate accommodation should they need to leave their abuser mid-trip.

Giving a copy of their itinerary and details on accommodation throughout the trip to a trusted friend or family member back home ensures someone knows where they should be if anything happens. Victims may also wish to leave copies of passports and travel documents with loved ones at home and to always carry the originals with them. If a restraining order is in place, the Full Faith and Credit clause for protection orders enforces restraining orders issued in one state to be honored and enforced in every state, so a copy of both the restraining order and Full Faith & Credit clause should be included with victims’ travel documents. It’s advisable to keep enough cash on them (in the local currency, if possible) to pay for a taxi and hotel room for a night. If traveling with children, it’s a good idea to include the children’s documents in precautions, teach them the local emergency number and helpful phrases in the local language (if old enough), find a safe place in/near accommodation where the children can go in an emergency, and research custody rights in their destination.

Safety Planning Without Support/Belief

Family and friends can be a great resource for information and aid. Victims without a good support system may have a harder time increasing their safety. Feeling alone and without assistance make it more difficult for victims to make positive changes in their situation. Even worse, if loved ones actively disbelieve the victim’s claims, they can add to the isolation and hopelessness victims already feel from their abuser. If they side with the abuser, it feeds the abuser’s power and control over the victim. Friends and family may also be pressure victims to “make it work” or blame them for family ruptures. With any of these challenges, victims often fear they will lose cherished relationships beyond that with their abuser. In victims’ decision making, maintaining these relationships may outweigh their desire for the abuse to stop, which may change their safety plan. Seeking out new acquaintances, support groups, and community resources can help victims feel less alone. Sometimes it’s actually easier to speak with a stranger than a friend. Domestic violence agencies, including DVSN, operate with principles of belief and non-judgment and are good places to find support and information. Victims in these circumstances may find it more important than ever to build in or increase self-care activities. Check out DVSN’s May 2021 post, “The Essentials of Self-Care”,  for more on its importance, plus some misconceptions and suggested activities.

Of course, each individual victim will have different circumstances and considerations that affect their safety plan. These are but a few of the most common. It is easy to see how complicated this process can be but also how significantly planning for various outcomes can increase safety for victims and their dependents. Throughout this post, there are suggestions that can be helpful to victims who choose to leave their abusers and to those who choose to stay with their abusers, as leaving may not be the best option for some victims. Learn more in our July 2022 blog post, “Why It’s Not Always Safe/Right to Leave an Abuser”.  DVSN Advocates can assist victims with thinking through and developing a safety plan tailored to their needs. Refer to part one of our safety planning overview for more details on reducing risk and exploring options.

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