A safety plan for domestic violence: How to get out

Woman victim of domestic abuse

Domestic violence safety is a big issue — probably a bigger issue than many people realize. It can be a matter of life and death.

In the United States alone, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) estimates 10 million men and women are physically abused by a domestic partner annually, and millions of those people may be in need of a safe exit plan.

What is a safe exit plan for domestic violence victims?

A safe exit plan, also referred to as a “safe exit strategy,” “escape plan,” and “safety plan,” among other names, is a plan designed to keep victims, children, and pets safe from a domestic violence situation.

Safety plans don’t always mean leaving a domestic violence situation.

Safety plans sometimes mean having a plan in place to keep everyone in the home as safe as possible if something should happen, especially if leaving isn’t an immediate option.

“Leaving is not always the safest option for victims, and it is essential that services for victims look beyond leaving as the only solution,” explains Sherry Hamby, research professor at the University of the South, and director of the Life Paths Appalachian Research Center. “The risk of homicide is highest in the time shortly before and immediately after leaving, and there are other major risks, such as losing custody of one’s children.”

Hamby adds, safety plans should not be only about ways to leave an abusive relationship.  There are other plans available, such as the VIGOR plan, which help victims and those working with them to work through the complex set of circumstances in each individual situation. Many times, a safety plan for domestic violence needs to be very specific to the victim(s) involved.

Safety plan basics

Safety plans are intended to keep people safe from domestic violence, and this isn’t as simple as avoiding an abuser in the heat of an argument.

According to  Dr. Kathryn Seifert, CEO of ESPS and CARE2, abusive relationships involve many levels of control and manipulation by the abuser.

“Abusive partners systematically break down their partner and make them dependent on them for money, transportation, and other necessities,” she says. “They often force the partner to cut off contact with friends and relatives, increasing the partner’s dependence on the abusive partner. The longer it goes on, the more the abused partner loses confidence and hope.”

For these reasons, and many others, safe exit plans can be complex, but often include basic tips like:

  • Have important phone numbers nearby for the abused and innocent members of the household.
  • Ask friends or neighbors to call 911 if they hear any sounds of distress from the residence.
  • Identify safe places in the home where there are multiple exits and no weapons. Try to contain domestic disputes in these places.
  • Keep a packed bag with essential items and paperwork ready in the event that leaving is necessary. If possible, leave it with someone else rather than hide it in the home.
  • Identify at least four ways to leave the home if there is an emergency.
  • Make arrangements for your pets to go to a friend or family member. Keep carriers or leashes ready and easily accessible.
  • Create habits that give you excuses to leave without question: getting groceries, walking the dog, taking out the trash, taking the children to activities.
  • Don’t take credit cards or cell phones that can be easily tracked.
  • Plan to go somewhere an abuser would not think to look for you.

For children:

  • Teach children to dial 911.
  • Instruct children to leave the home, or go to a designated safe room if domestic violence occurs.
  • Teach children to avoid rooms like kitchens and bathrooms where items can often be used as weapons.
  • Teach children a code word to use if they feel they need help.
  • Enroll children in a counseling program at school or during a time when they are safely away from the home.

“It is always important to have a safe exit plan,” says Dr. Seifert. “Money sewed into her clothes, an extra car key sewed into her clothes, a place to go and know how to get there, leaving when he is not home and there is time to get away, leave no hints as to where she has gone. Going to relatives or a close friend is often not safe because that is the first place he will look for her. Take cash not a credit card.”

For some victims, leaving may not be immediately possible.

Young children, children with school and sport schedules, pets, or disabled family members may complicate leaving an abusive relationship. Dr. Seifert notes individuals with wealthy significant others often fear they won’t see their children again if they leave the situation.

“The most important aspect of any safety plan is listening to the victim,” adds Hamby. “She knows more about the situation than anyone else.  It is also essential to be an honest witness, and not to make promises about help from law enforcement or social services agencies that may not always be supportive in every jurisdiction. There are many steps that victims can take to increase their safety, and it is most important to help them think through the full range of choices and respect their point of view.”

Where to go for help

If you’re wondering how to leave an abusive partner but have children, pets, other family members, or circumstances that make you fearful to leave, there is help available. Here is a list of resources to help you work through your safety plan for domestic violence:

  1. The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) (or 1-800-787-3224 for TTY)
  2. The Domestic Violence Resource Center’s safety plan checklist
  3. The VIGOR is a strength-based approach to safety planning. Information is available in both English and Spanish.   
  4. Safe exit plan packing list from the Office on Women’s Health

Safety plan at a glance

Safety plan for domestic violence victims

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