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Safety Planning & Barriers to Leaving
"Why doesn't the victim just leave?"
This question shows a misunderstanding of the dynamics of domestic violence, puts responsibility on the person experiencing abuse and reveals a cultural tendency to blame the victim. It is more appropriate—and more helpful—to ask "Why does the abuser choose abuse?” or "Why can't he/she be stopped from hurting his/her family?"
Reflect on your own life. Have you ever maintained a relationship with a difficult relative or friend? Or stayed too long in a job with a difficult manager? People in abusive relationships face even more difficult choices when leaving.
When choosing whether to leave or to stay, people experiencing abuse must consider:
Fear. The risks—of being killed or hurt, of the abuser committing suicide, of not being believed about the abuse, of being stalked by the abuser, of placing their kids at risk via unsupervised visitation with the abuser—are real. Note that the vast majority of domestic violence homicides occur while victims are leaving, or after they have left. Victims know that leaving doesn’t necessarily stop the abuser from choosing to abuse.
Isolation. A common tactic used by abusers is to cut off access to a their partners’ support systems, such as helpful friends or family members, jobs or money, transportation, childcare, housing, and social services.
Economic Reality. The unfortunate truth may be that a victim is not able to support her/himself and the children without the abuser's income; may not possess marketable skills; may have limited access to government assistance; may dread welfare; and due to an abuser's control of money may have no access to cash, checks, or important documents.
Childhood Experiences. Living in a home where abuse was perpetrated by one parent against the other may leave a victim feeling that abuse is unavoidable in relationships, or that it is okay to abuse people you love when they have done something wrong.
Beliefs About the Abuser. People often feel conflicting beliefs about the person who is abusing them, including strong feelings of love and emotional connection, as well as the belief that the abuser is all-powerful and will be able to find the victim anywhere. Due to compassion or pity a victim may feel that s/he is the only one who can help the abuser overcome problems.
Beliefs About Themselves. Over time, victims may start to accept of responsibility for the problems in the relationship. Abusers repeatedly blame victims for the abuse, and victims’ self-esteem can suffer due to repeated acts of abuse and a feeling that abusive behavior is all they deserve.
Instead of asking “Why doesn’t the victim leave?” it is important to ask “How can we help the victim be safe?”
In order to be safe, a person needs to be able to live free of fear of emotional, mental and physical harm. But they need more than that, too. They need stable housing, an income that covers their basic needs, and a support system that fosters health and well-being. Someone living with domestic abuse must consider all of these factors when considering how to stay as safe as possible.
Safety planning is the process of considering the myriad of actions, both large and small, victims and their supporters can take to help minimize the risk of harm. Advocates with Maine’s eight domestic violence resource centers are experts in safety planning. When someone experiencing abuse calls the helpline, an advocate helps them gauge the level and type of risk, and consider ways to minimize the risk.
Typical elements of a safety plan may include:
- Gathering important documents, money and medications in one place, in case one needs to leave quickly
- Making a plan with the neighbors to call the police if they hear shouting or other noises
- Finding a time when one can call the helpline from a safe, private spot—perhaps from work, or a doctor’s appointment
- Seeking a Protection from Abuse order
- Arranging for a safe place for pets to stay
- Talking with the children about how and when to call 911
- Identifying ways to diffuse an abuser’s anger, and finding safe places in the home to go if the situation escalates
- Establishing a regular time when a friend or family member calls or checks in
Safety plans are always individualized, and can be simple or incredibly complex. And victims and advocates aren’t the only ones with a part to play. The greater community—family, friends, coworkers, police, childcare providers, clergy members—has a role, too.