Developing a safety plan for domestic violence situations is a subject about which much more should be said than can be said in an article of this brevity. Our goal here is to offer a primer on how to respond to the disclosure that there is physical abuse in someone’s home. We will focus on four components of responding well.

  1. Understanding what changes when minors are involved.
  2. Understanding the fear and risk being taken by the victim.
  3. The basics of a good safety plan.
  4. The value of connection the victim with an experienced helper.

Minor vs. Adult

There are important legal distinctions about what should happen (1) when there is abuse or neglect towards a child, elderly, or disabled person as compared to (2) when abuse occurs towards an adult capable of self-care. In this article we will focus on abuse against an adult, but it is important to understand what is different if a minor is also being abused.

Reporting abuse is mandated when it is against a minor. Children have neither the level of independence to seek safety nor the intellectual capacity to understand what is happening in abuse, so our governing authorities have said they will intervene on a child’s behalf. For example, the relevant North Caroline statute reads:

“Any person or institution who has cause to suspect that a child under age 18 is abused, neglected, or dependent must make a report to the county department of social services (G.S. 7B-301). As long as the reporter is acting in good faith, they cannot be held liable (G.S. 7B-309).”

Most state laws are very similar. Appendix A of the Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused curriculum includes all 50 state laws regarding: (a) mandated reporting laws for abuse in each state and relevant pastor-parishioner privilege, (b) the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of sexual assault or past abuse, and (c) age requirements pertaining to statutory rape and sex between minors.

What is different when abuse is only against an adult (meaning no minors are involved or exposed)? When abuse is against an adult, the adult victim is granted the choice about whether to get a restraining order (civil court) or pressing charges (criminal court). This is a legitimately difficult decision. Legal action makes their experience public and requires them to go through a legal process where “innocent until proven guilty” requires cross examination. Allowing the victim to make this decision is part of restoring their voice and giving them back a sense of control over the major events of their life. It is wise for a victim to make this decision with the advisement of a counselor and/or attorney experienced with abuse cases and the legal process.

Understanding Fear and Risk

When someone musters the courage to confide their unsafe home situation, they will almost inevitably be upset as they do so. This is for good reason, the time when a victim begins to confide in others and take steps towards safety is one of the most dangerous times. Abusers who realize they have been found out or fear they are about to be found out become much more reactive. Secrecy is how they avoid consequences for their actions. Therefore, their secret being found out is their greatest liability.

Additionally, the victim is uncertain about how their disclosure will be received. They fear not being believed. They fear having to “prove” their abuse is “bad enough” to be called abuse. They fear their spouse will be alerted in order to get the other side of the story. Undoubtedly, they have been told how stupid they are, that no one would believe them, and how their life would be ruined if they shared what was happening at home.

This means the victim may present as erratic, fearful beyond what the immediate context would normally warrant, or angry. There may be an instinct to be defensive towards questions. Events are unlikely to be shared in a linear fashion and as a cohesive narrative. Their story may be shared in such a way that implies, that after hearing the story, you should change it. These factors combine to make the victim of abuse come across as unbelievable or unrealistic to someone who is not experienced in receiving a disclosure of abuse. Actually, these things reveal how momentous the act of disclosure is for the victim and that this is a pivotal juncture in their life story.

Not becoming distracted, suspicious, or put off by the emotions that often accompany an abuse disclosure is an important part of providing good care. In that sense, it is not unlike working in an ER. Doctors and nurses in this setting much learn not to be distracted by the physical condition of their patients in need or emergency care if they are going to do their jobs well.

Basic Components of Safety Plan

When you learn of abuse and realize the need for a safety plan, how you communicate is vitally important. Too often, in moments like these, the victim can feel like a liability to be managed more than a person to be cared for. This happens when our vocal tone and demeanor becomes fear-based and talks about what “must happen.” The victim can begin to feel like they are losing control again; initially because of being abused, now because of disclosing abuse.

Too often, in moments like these, the victim can feel like a liability to be managed more than a person to be cared for. Click To Tweet

The adult victim should make every choice about what happens and when it happens. Our role in helping to develop a safety plan is to validate that pursuing safety is a legitimate choice and to clarify relevant facets of pursuing safety that may not be immediately self-evident.

As you think about walking with a victim through the process of creating a safety plan, here is an outline you can follow. It may feel awkward in a moment when there is not active aggression to make these preparations, but these efforts help ensure your friend has options if/when unsafe times arise again. Mentally walking through the process of developing a safety plan is both preparation and a form of practice for implementing the safety plan.

Pack a bag with all of the supplies you would need to be away from your home for at least two to three nights (i.e., clothes, medication, cash, important documents, extra set of keys, etc.). Keep this bag either in your vehicle or at the residence where you would stay if it were needed. Trying to gather these items during a conflict only escalates an already dangerous situation.

Inform key people that would need to cooperate with your safety plan. This would include the person with whom you planned to stay and, if you do not desire this location to be known by your abuser, informing anyone who knows where you would be staying that you desire this information to remain private.

Plan your exit. Mentally walk through the steps you would need to take. The following points are meant to help you walk through this planning process. This exercise is comparable to the preparatory fire drills you likely did as a student in school.

  • I can keep a bag ready and put it [location] so I can leave quickly.
  • I can avoid [rooms of the house] when conflict is possible, so I am not trapped without access to an exit.
  • I will abstain from retaliating verbally or physically to prevent the situation from escalating further.
  • I can tell [name] about the violence and have them call the police when violence erupts.
  • I can teach my children to use the telephone to call the police and the fire department.
  • I will use this code word “[blank]” for my children, friends, or family to call for help.
  • If I have to leave my home, I will go to [location].
  • I can teach these strategies to my children.
  • I will leave money and an extra set of keys with [name].
  • I will keep important documents and keys at [location].
  • I will check with [blank] to know who will let me stay with them.
  • I will consult with a family advocate to ensure I am not breaking any custody laws during the separation.
  • If I need to return home for belongings and feel unsafe, I am aware I can ask for a police escort.

A separation may result in your being in the home and the abusive person leaving, or you renting your own place to stay because of the lack of cooperation and need for a mid-term living environment for you and your children. If a lack of cooperation resulted in a prolonged separation, this would require additional considerations.

  • I can change the locks on my doors and windows as soon as possible.
  • I can install a security system.
  • I can install an outside lighting system that lights up when someone approaches my home.
  • I will teach my children how to use the phone to make collect calls to me and to (911, friend, family, pastor) if my partner tried to take them.
  • I will tell the people who care for my children who has permission to pick up my children. Inform the following people (school, day care, babysitter, church leaders, etc.)
  • I can tell the following people [list] that my partner no longer lives with me and that they should call the police if he is near my residence (neighbors, church leaders, friends, etc.)

If the degree of threat escalated during the separation or was predatory prior to the separation, then a protection order may be warranted. When considering a protection order, it is wise to:

  • Speak with the police department in the city or county in which you hold residence.
  • Ask them to explain the process and evidence necessary to secure a protection order.
  • Clarify what actions on your part would nullify the restraining order.
  • Write down the name of the preferred individual/office to notify if the restraining order is violated.

It is important to understand the precise legal protections provided and limitations created by a restraining order. If you choose to get a protection order, then it is wise to consider.

  • I will keep the protection order here [location]. Always keep a copy with you.
  • I will give a copy of my protection order to police departments in the areas that I visit my friends, family, where I live, and where I work.
  • I will tell my employer, church leader, friends, family and others that I have a protection order.
  • If my protection order gets destroyed, I can go to the County Courthouse and get another copy.
  • If my partner violates the protection order, I will call the police and report it. I will call my lawyer, advocate, counselor, and/ or tell the courts about the violation.

As a friend or pastor, you may not understand the implications or ramifications of each part of the retraining order. That’s okay. Your support, even when you are as confused as your friend, is of significant value. But it highlights the importance of our final point.

Most Valuable: Connection to an Experienced Person

Your friend needs to be connected with someone who is experienced working with abusive relationships. A simple litmus test for “experienced” is someone who can conversationally explain the “why” behind the “what” of each bulleted item above and has walked alongside other people enacting a safety plan. This would be someone comfortable helping your friend talk with law enforcement, social workers, attorneys, and other professionals who may be involved in this process.

In a moment of crisis, this can be as simple as calling the National Domestic Abuse Hotline, 800.799.SAFE (7233), and supporting your friend as they talk with them. During the conversation your role is to (a) help your friend share their story clearly, (b) take notes on recommendations made, (c) ensure your friend understands what to do after the call, and (d) continue to support your friend in implementing the recommendations.

Often, even with good advisement, a domestic abuse victim can feel overwhelmed and give up on the process of pursuing safety. The supportive role of a friend and church can help circumvent this from happening. If you are part of a church’s care team efforts around someone in crisis, here is additional guidance on how to fulfill this role well.

Webinar Invitation

This article was written to set up the presentation for the free webinar “Developing a Safety Plan for Domestic Violence” The webinar will be Thursday May 6th at 1pm EST. My goal in this twice-monthly series of free webinars is to teach one primary counseling concept or skill each month and then provide a case study that allows participants to become more proficient at utilizing that skill or concept.

These are great events for:

  • Pastors, chaplains, and ministry leaders looking to enhance their pastoral care skills
  • Counselors wanting CEU credits to help them learn more about the intersection of their faith and practice
  • Leaders in church-based counseling ministries looking to grow in their case wisdom
  • Undergraduate students looking to discern a calling to vocational ministry or a career as a professional counselor
  • Friends and small group leaders committed to walking faithfully alongside their peers in tough times