When we list the services that REACH provides to domestic violence survivors, we almost always include the words “safety planning.” But what exactly does that mean? Have you ever stopped to think about it? When you do, you start to understand the complexity of the challenges that domestic violence survivors face.
When one of our Advocates meets with a domestic violence survivor, safety is always a chief concern. REACH works with survivors from all walks of life, and many are at different points on their journey. Some are still in a relationship with an abusive partner, some may be out of the situation but fear that their ex-partner is still looking for them, some may be facing their abuser’s imminent release after years in prison. Whatever the situation, we work with each person to keep them as safe as possible. In the field of public health this is known as a “harm reduction” approach.
So that’s the first thing to know about a safety plan – it’s highly individualized. We find out as much as we can about the person: Do they feel safe at work? At home? Is there a restraining order in place? Are they planning to leave their abuser?
A good safety plan is realistic. We focus on asking a lot of questions to find out about the survivor’s situation. What usually precedes a violent incident? Do you feel safe calling the police? Do you feel safe calling our hotline? Does your abuser control your cell phone account? What has worked to diffuse an escalating situation in the past? We firmly believe that each survivor is the expert on their own life, that they know their partner better than we do.
Lastly, a good safety plan is as concrete as possible. If it’s safe to do so we usually have the survivor write out their plan, and keep a copy for them. We even encourage them to practice it, if possible. It could be something as simple as “I will keep my cell phone charged at all times” or “I will call this person if I need help” or “I will take the following documents with me when I leave” or “I will be aware of where the exits are…” Again, the idea is harm reduction. So if someone still lives with an abuser, we might encourage them to think about where in the home the arguments tend to take place, and then to try to avoid arguing in places like the kitchen, with its hard surfaces and sharp objects, or a bathroom with only one exit. It might feel awful to you to even think like that. But the idea of leaving an abuser, finding a new place to live, finding a way to support yourself and your kids, navigating the legal system…all of that can feel overwhelming to someone in an abusive relationship. On the other hand, moving an argument to the living room, or making copies of important documents – these are the concrete and realistic steps that may eventually lead to the bigger steps away from abuse.
It’s important to note that no amount of planning can control an abuser’s behavior. The idea of safety planning is not to place responsibility on the survivor, but rather to give them as much agency as possible to control the things they can control. If you or someone you know could benefit from talking through this kind of plan, please call our office (781-891-0724) and schedule an appointment.