Guest columnists and contributors are generously sharing their talents and insights while I’m taking some time to care for my new baby. Today’s post comes from Kim Souder, who volunteered at a domestic violence shelter for a few years in high school, and spent three years volunteering as a rape crisis counselor through the YWCA while in graduate school.
My aim with this article is to help you stay safe in an abusive relationship. It is up to you whether you want to stay in this relationship or not, and I am not here to tell you what to do. However, I do hope you will be able to tailor a safety plan specific for your situation based on the advice I’m providing. For more help, contact the national domestic violence hotline (www.thehotline.org) at 1-800-799-SAFE or find a local hotline in your area. They should be able to point you to location-specific resources like support groups, counselors, and shelters. After the jump, 17 tips to keep you safe whether you plan to stay or are planning your escape.
1. Rate the safety of each room in your house/apartment and decide which rooms to avoid if you sense a violent situation approaching. You ideally want a room with multiple exits, a phone, and fewer items that can be thrown or used as weapons.
2. Try to learn your partner’s pattern of abuse and stressors, and leave the house if you see an abusive situation coming on.
3. In an abusive situation, try to make yourself a small target and cover up your most vulnerable parts. Curl up in a ball in the corner, making sure to protect your face.
4. Avoid wearing anything that can be used to strangle or pull you (scarves, necklaces).
5. Try to keep a cell phone on your person at all times in case you become incapacitated and need to call for help.
6. Come up with a way to signal for outside help if you decide you need it. One suggestion I’ve heard is to tell a neighbor if they see a certain item in the window, they should call the police. You don’t have to tell them why (this tip can also be used for someone in a home burglary situation), but allows you the potential to get outside help if things get too violent. You can also teach your children what to do if your partner becomes abusive.
7. Build yourself a support network. Part of domestic violence often involves isolating the victim and keeping them away from their friends and family members. See what you can do to re-establish contact and build your support network. A number of the tips below rely on help from a trusted family member or friend. Make sure this person is 100% loyal to you and will not be in contact with your abuser.
8. Be careful who you call and what websites you visit. You abuser may be monitoring your phone bill and internet activity, so find a safe place outside the home to conduct any research, speak to counselors, or call hotlines.
9. Gather your important documents in a safety deposit box (or at a trusted friend/family members house). See if you can get your hands on things like your birth certificate, social security card, mortgage paperwork, bank records, vehicle proof of ownership, pay stubs, checkbooks, credit card statements, driver’s license, green card, medical records, passport, copies of keys, marriage certificate, etc… and put them in a safe place outside your home. Have a friend or family member keep your key to your safety deposit box (you can even put it in their name if you want). Also gather any paperwork related to your children as well (including immunization records and school documents). This step will likely take time and you don’t want to rush through it. Take the time to list all of the documents you might need and obtain these documents in ways where your abuser will not be aware of what you are doing. If you have to leave before you are done, that’s OK – you will likely be able to acquire many of these documents later. Also, if you are worried about the abuser noticing that documents are missing, you can photocopy then return these documents.
10. If you (or your children) are on any medication, gather up an extra supply of it and hide it with a trusted friend/family member.
11. Develop some financial independence. See if you can siphon off a bit of money into an account your abuser doesn’t know about. It can be in your name or a name of a trusted friend/family member. Try to establish your own bank account and credit card. Make sure your statements do not get mailed to your house, do not access your account information from a home computer, and do not keep records of this account in your house. Start small and only put in money you are confident he won’t be missing. It will take you time to do this safely, but any money that you can sock away now will help you if you decide you need to leave. Also, if you don’t have a job, start looking for a job, updating your resume, or developing a plan to acquire job skills to become more self-reliant.
12. Find local resources including a local hotline and shelter you can escape to if needed.
13. Document the abuse in a safe way. Take photographs, keep a journal (with specific dates, times, events, and potential witnesses), or speak with a police officer. Keep these documents outside the house.
14. If you decide to leave, leave when he isn’t home (and when he won’t be home for a large enough window of time to move out). You can call and request a police escort stand-by while you leave. Take everything important to you, but you likely won’t have time to take everything you own. Focus on enough supplies (clothes) to get yourself started and irreplaceable items (photographs, family heirlooms). Some of these can be moved to a family member or safety deposit box in advance if they won’t be missed. Assume you will have to leave quickly and start mentally preparing for what you can leave behind and what you will have to take with you. You can also prepare to leave a false trail for the abuser to follow.
15. Find out information about obtaining and enforcing a restraining order. Make sure to inform your children’s school of the situation so they know not to release your children to your spouse.
16. Once you have left, be careful about what documents list your address and people have your address and phone number. Get a PO box or use a trusted friend/family member for your mail. Also, change your patterns of behavior (including routes driven, daily schedule) and consider installing security devices or alarms at your residence.
17. Google “domestic violence safety plan” from a safe computer to see if they have any additional suggestions.
Finally, I want to say that whatever you decide to do, the abuse is never your fault. Even if he says “you make him hurt you,” the abuse results because of the abuser and their personal shortcomings. You can always find support and help (even if you decide to stay with him).
*Kim Souder is a geologist who volunteered at a domestic violence shelter for a few years in high school, and spent three years volunteering as a rape crisis counselor through the YWCA while in graduate school (and received an award for Volunteer of the Year). Her work involved extensive training to complete crisis-counselor certification, answering hotline phone calls, accompanying victims to hospital exams and police interviews, and training to assist in hospital exams involving children.