Abusers aim to throw survivors off-balance by exerting power and control at random times. Then again, because they often repeat their power and control tactics over and over, survivors often know that the next abusive episode is likely just around the corner.
A safety plan is a form of protection that allows a survivor to prepare what they can do during or between abusive incidents to keep themselves and their children safe. This might involve how they can escape, where they can go, who they can rely on to help them, and the additional protections they can put in place to possibly stay gone for good.
The Call to Consider Making First
It might be difficult to see the level of danger a survivor is in while they’re during abuse. Consider calling a local domestic violence hotline and asking an advocate to help you create a safety plan. They may also walk you through risk assessments, talk about shelter options and provide other local resources such as support groups and lay legal help should you need to go to court. Remember, you can call a hotline even if you’re not ready to leave.
A Survivor Knows Their Situation Best
We’ve said it many times before on DomesticShelters.org, but only the survivor knows when it’s safest to leave an abuser. Therefore, a safety plan may not be the permanent escape plan. It may be the leave-for-right-now plan, and that’s OK. Ideally, every survivor would live a life without abuse, but we understand that this takes careful planning, especially because leaving an abuser is notoriously the most dangerous time for a survivor.
Creating a Safety Plan
Step 1: Gather Evidence
In safety planning, the idea is that once you get away from an abuser, you may want to get an order of protection, press charges, file for divorce, or file for custody of your children. You may also have pets that you want to make sure you can retain as well. In all these instances, having proof of the abuse is only going to help you.
“Victims have a tough time being believed,” says Giugi Carminati, JD, attorney, activist, and author of the blog Argue Like a Girl. “They’re often accused of suffering the after-effects of abuse—things like cognitive impairment, memory problems, and paranoia—and their testimony can be called into question as a result.”
Evidence that can help you can include:
Step 2: Pack a Bag and Hide It
If you need to leave in a hurry, you may not have time to collect your things. You may need to simply run out the door. If possible, pack a bag with daily necessities, important documents, ideally some cash and things that your children and pets will need, and store it at a friend’s house, your place of work, or somewhere else that your abusive partner won’t find it.
Items you may want to consider packing include:
Tip: Keep photos of these documents in a secure digital file. In some cases, photos will be sufficient proof of documentation, and in other cases, the photos will make it easier for you to replace the document if you need to leave without it.
Tip: If possible, secure new doctors, dentists, orthodontists, veterinarians, schools, and other locations for yourself, your children, and your pets so your abusive partner can’t find you in those places, and make a list of the contact information for each to take with you.
Tip: Leave a spare set of car keys with someone you trust in case the abuser takes yours to try to prevent you from leaving.
Step 3: Think of Where You Can go
The next time you feel things start to escalate, or the next time you have a window of opportunity to leave without the abuser around, plan where you can go. This could be:
Speaking of tracking, keep in mind that if you have a cell phone, the abuser may be able to trace your location, so consider getting a pay-as-you-go temporary phone and leaving your cell behind.
Step 4: Imagine Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios
In the best-case scenario, the survivor escapes the abuser, presses charges, the abuser goes to jail for a long time and never bothers the survivor again and the survivor begins a new, safe, healthy life. (Yes, this can happen.)
But in less-than-ideal scenarios, the abuser will use tactics they’ve used before to ramp up control if they suspect the survivor is planning to leave. When an abuser feels like they are losing control, it is often the most dangerous time for a survivor. Prepare for this by thinking out different scenarios that could happen and what you will do. For example, if an abuser always shuts the bedroom door to close you in before he or she becomes violent, can you unlock a window ahead of time, given you’re on the ground floor and exit through it when this starts? If an abuser threatens to keep or harm your children or pets if you leave, can you make sure they’re in a safe place before you leave, such as taking them to a trusted relative’s house? Can you create a code word that, if you say it in front of your children, they’ll know to run next door to the neighbor’s house and call 911?
Step 5: Plan for the Next Day
After a survivor leaves an abusive partner, or the abuser is forced to leave a shared home (in the case of being arrested, for instance, or in the rare case of a kick-out order), survivors need to stay vigilant to ensure their safety. Read, “Will My Partner Be Violent After I Leave?” to learn more about warning signs that your partner could increase their violence after leaving. Then, consider taking the following steps:
Consider Your Emotional Safety, Also
Leaving an abusive partner can be a big change. Relying on oneself and possibly adjusting to a new environment can be stressful and disorienting, even if, logically, you feel safer.
“People go through a period of shock, and they need time to adjust,” says Maria Garay-Serratos, CEO of Sojourner Center, a domestic violence shelter in Phoenix, Ariz. “They’ve made the most courageous decision they ever have to make in their lives.” Moving forward “is a lifetime healing journey, and it’s very individual,” she says.