Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

17 Safety Tips to Survive (and Escape) Domestic Violence

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.

15 comments… add one
  • avatar

    Lisa November 2, 2011, 12:34 pm

    Wow this article has perfect timing. I just got out of an abusive relationship, and even though it never escalated to violence, it was still frightening at times. These are all good suggestions and I hope it can help someone out there, and give them the confidence they need. Thank you for this and all your help!

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      GatorGirl November 2, 2011, 12:55 pm

      I was in a verbal, mental and sometimes physically abusive relationship 4ish years ago. Kudos to you for getting out and taking care of yourself. One piece of advice- cut him out completely and for the rest of your life. He is not going to change.

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  • avatar

    Carolynasaurus November 2, 2011, 12:39 pm

    These are really great tips. Incredibly eye opening.

    Here’s hoping that anyone reading them never have to use them.

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  • JK

    JK November 2, 2011, 12:39 pm

    Great advice.
    It breaks my heart that so many people go through this. I´m sure your article will help.

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    Jubietta November 2, 2011, 1:40 pm

    And I’d like to point out that the advice works as well with the he/she pronouns reversed. It isn’t always a male abuser and male victims need an exit strategy, too.
    Thanks for putting all of this together, Kim, and also to Wendy for making it available. It’s hard to be mistreated by someone you love and trust, whether a partner, perent, sibling or child. Please know there is help and it will get better.

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  • avatar

    AKchic November 2, 2011, 1:51 pm

    #15 – Unfortunately, if a restraining order isn’t in place giving you temporary custody of the children (with no contact for the other parent), a school will NOT bar the other parent from removing the child from school. If the parent is on the birth certificate, or has a paternity test proving parenthood, then the parent can legally remove the child from school. If there is a legally documented custody order, the non-custodial parent may remove the child from school as well.
    I found that out when my 5-year no-contact order expired a few years ago. I live in constant fear that my ex will find out what school my son is at and remove him from the school, even though he hasn’t seen him since he was 9 months old. He has taken his other sons before, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

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    • JK

      JK November 2, 2011, 2:00 pm

      Wow, I had no idea thngs worked like that in the US. Here (Argentina), the people allowed to remove or pick up a child from school have to have written permission, with all their info left at the school (ID number, phone number, etc).
      I hope your fears are unfounded. Can a no contact order be renewed?

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        AKchic November 2, 2011, 2:23 pm

        Not unless something happens that warrants it. Such as a viable death threat (we have to be in the same town), a proven contracted murder-for-hire, etc. Anything he says on the internet they refuse to take seriously because as the judge says “how can you be sure it’s actually him?”. *sigh* All of the mothers of his children stick together. When he shoots his “mouth” off to one on facebook, from his personal page, in his own name, we know. Getting his parental rights terminated has been a “fun” endeavor.

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      • JK

        JK November 2, 2011, 2:29 pm

        I´m so sorry for what you´re going through (and have been for a while, apparently). I´m glad you have the support from the other mothers.
        I´ll send positive thoughts your way.

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        AKchic November 2, 2011, 6:04 pm

        Thanks. Alaska’s system isn’t exactly the best. Even if I wanted to move out of state, I’d have to get permission from the court to do so (which is pretty universal for any custodial parent in the US). I can’t get my son a passport without approval from my ex either, which means no overseas vacations until he’s over 18. If I died, he automatically goes back to my ex, etc.
        My ex doesn’t want him. He wants the money associated with him. Life insurance monies, welfare benefits he could get by having a child in the home, and his own little pipe dream of charging my family “child support” (keeping him alive for $1000/month). That’s all he cares about – financial support so he doesn’t have to work.
        That’s why his parental rights are being terminated. Once he’s gotten the point that he has no leverage, no way of making any money off of my son, and can’t control him/me for any gain, he’ll go away for good. For the most part, he randomly pops up online since we’re 360 miles apart (for now, never know when he’ll decide to move back to Anchorage when he’s done burning bridges in Fairbanks). He threw a real hissy fit when his sister told him that his mom and I still communicate regularly, and that she’s testifying against him at his termination hearing.

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      • JK

        JK November 2, 2011, 6:25 pm

        God, I just can´t imagine a person like that! Good that his mom is on your side as well, all too often you hear of the families covering up for these a**holes.
        Hope the termination hearing goes smoothly and quickly, keep us posted!

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    • avatar

      Kim November 3, 2011, 11:21 am

      Yeah – unfortunately there are a lot of things in the current legal system that suck. The thing that shocked me the most is that if police respond to a domestic violence call, and someone has any marks on them – they have to arrest the other person. This makes sense to some extent because women can be abusers as well. But, abusers know how to not leave marks (so they avoid being arrested) and have learned that they can scratch themselves up and get the victim arrested. I don’t really know of a way to make the law better, but some context has to be useful in those situations.

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        6napkinburger November 3, 2011, 11:28 am

        Dealing with domestic disturbances is always incredibly difficult. They instituted that rule because others would hear the disturbance and call, and then the battered spouse (in these instances that prompted the lobbying for the law, it was overwhelmingly (to the point of saying “always”) the wife who was being beaten. They would tell the police it was nothing, and ask them not to arrest the husband (many times because of how much worse it would be if they didn’t, once he got out of jail). So they made it so the wife didn’t have the option. But it still sucks for many many reasons, including that with the husband in jail, there is no paycheck and no food. (The way middle and upper class abuse occurs, it tends to have a different dynamic, if only because people tend not to hear the disputes as the houses are further away.)

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    Temperance November 2, 2011, 7:29 pm

    Another important thing to note is that a restraining order can get an abuser evicted from the home, in many cases. It’s not fair that the victim be forced to give up all her possessions, furniture, etc., especially when you consider that the abuser is often in a much better place financially.

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      Kim November 3, 2011, 11:16 am

      While that is true, in many cases it is not safe for your ex to know where you live. If you have the abuser evicted, they could come back and hurt you in your house. That is why we generally recommend (especially in more severe cases) moving out to a location they don’t know about. The most dangerous time for an abuse victim is when they try to leave their abuser, and they could run into serious risk of injury by staying in their house.

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