By Rebecca Lynn
According to the Domestic Abuse Shelter of the Florida Keys, 75% of victims who lose their lives to domestic violence are murdered while leaving, or after leaving their abuser. Let that soak in for one moment: whether you are a victim who is still with your abuser, a survivor who is still trying to stay safe, or someone who is looking in, and has wondered why they stay, this is a terrifying statistic. It keeps victims from leaving, or from staying away from their abusers once they go.
The fear you feel as a victim is most likely not the only factor that keeps you in an abusive situation. You may have been told by your abuser that you can’t make it on your own, that you will lose your kids or even your life. The aftermath of financial abuse and isolation may have you concerned about where you will go, how you will get there, and how you will support yourself and your children. For most victims, you have made your children a priority in your personal list of reasons to stay. It may be important to you for them to be raised in a two-parent home, or the idea of losing them, even to shared custody, is too much for you to risk. So, you take it upon yourself and try everything in your power to give your children a sense of normalcy in a house of dysfunction.
Consequently, the reason you stayed could be the most influential reason you leave. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year, and 90% of these children are eyewitnesses to the violence.”
As time goes by, domestic violence tends to escalate. The time in between incidents shortens and the abuse becomes more serious. Your children may have witnessed the abuse, feel responsible for the dysfunction, or worse–have become victims themselves. But how do you protect them, and yourself, when the statistics are so unfavorable? Leaving is not only dangerous, but it can be complicated, as well. It takes preparation, support, and a well thought out the safety plan.
So, what exactly is a safety plan? A safety plan helps you brainstorm options that can keep both you and your children safe during times of violence, while fleeing your abuser, and after leaving the relationship. A safety plan can be started by merely putting ideas down on paper, or using online templates, tips to stay safe, and suggestions on what to pack.
Another valuable option is to contact a domestic violence advocate, like those at Break the Silence, who are experienced in creating plans, answering questions, and are knowledgeable of resources. One of the most important parts of creating a safety plan is that you stay safe while doing it. This means being careful using trackable computers and phones, and ensuring that your plan is stored in a secure place, away from your abuser.
Your plan may not be figured out and ready for action overnight. In fact, the safest plans involve thinking out and preparing for several different types of scenarios. Depending on the age of your children, it is best to include them in the process, Because so many kids feel the need to protect their parents, it is common that they feel responsible or intervene at a time that could put them at risk.
One of the first parts of your plan should focus on how to protect yourself and your children while violence is occurring. It is important to let them know that they aren’t responsible for the violence and that their only responsibility is staying safe. It is recommended that you and your children come up with a code word or signal that lets them know what to do when violence occurs. This will vary depending on the age of the children. If they are younger, it can simply mean to run quietly to a room and lock the door when the chosen word is said. As they get older, they can be responsible for getting younger siblings out of the house and calling 911 when it is safe. If you are able, it is a good idea to practice using the code word, going through the steps of getting to a safe place, and going through scenarios that may require a change in the original plan.
Preparing to leave can be one of the most time-consuming and risky parts of the process. It is during this part of the planning that you begin packing essential documents, medications, phone numbers, verification of ID, and any proof of abuse you may have documented. You should take precautions, such as leaving the bag with someone or someplace that is safe to avoid your abuser from finding it. It is important to use this time to become independent of your abuser by opening up a bank account under only your name or getting a new phone and phone number that can be strategically hidden to use for emergencies.
When you have children, a critical part of the preparation process is researching your legal options and limitations for leaving with your children. According to Womanslaw.org, each state varies on its laws and definitions regarding parental rights, and the ability for the victim to take the children out of the state legally. If you have any questions or are in need of advice, a domestic violence advocate is an excellent resource to help you locate lawyers and free legal advice.
Okay, your well thought out plan has gotten both you and your children out of the house. However, this is not the end of the plan. In fact, this is a crucial time to be vigilant and knowledgeable, so you can continue to keep yourself and your children safe. Ask an advocate about the steps and benefits of filing for a protective order, ways to keep your home safe, and how to create another plan or update your current one, so you are prepared to leave quickly if your abuser shows up. Many community resources can be used to help you find support groups, jobs, places to stay and to give you advice on how to stay safe online, in public, and when you are at home. Every victim and survivors situation is unique, but in all situations the better prepared you are, the more successful you will be at carrying out your plan.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.