We’ve discussed safety planning before on this blog, but we wanted to bring you a different perspective, first hand from someone who answers our hotline. The following piece was written by one of our Advocates.
Sometimes it’s hard to think through a situation on your own. Especially in situations that seem to either keep repeating themselves or continue to escalate, it is natural to feel stuck. Talking through a situation with someone else allows you to have an outside perspective. It helps you get more creative, think through the issue a little more deeply, and above all, reminds you that you are not alone. In my work with survivors of domestic violence, this is called safety planning.
For survivors of domestic violence, isolation is often a tool that abusers will use to increase their power and control. As friends and people who care about these survivors, it can often feel like we’ve been abandoned or we may even find ourselves asking “what’s the point of continuing to reach out?” Breaking down this isolation, and letting the survivor know that you are there for them, and that you will continue to be there for them, can be a safety plan all its own.
Safety planning is exactly what it sounds like: thinking through a situation and trying to reduce the potential harm. When I’m talking with survivors, it often becomes clear that it’s not always possible to create a “safe” situation. Our focus has to be on making it safer.
On the hotline, I create safety plans with callers all the time. I ask questions, help them think through the situation, think of alternatives just in case, and we try to create a plan to reduce the potential harm and keep them as safe as possible.
We know that we can’t control an abuser’s behavior, and the safety plan isn’t intended to place responsibility on the survivor, but to give that person as much agency as possible over the things they can control. One time I talked with a survivor who wanted to confront her abuser and let him know that unless he was willing to enter a batterer’s intervention program, she would be leaving him. She knew that if this conversation happened one-on-one it would likely escalate to a physical incident. She was able to identify that his mother was already aware of the abuse, and would be a safe person to come over and be present for the conversation. We talked about the setting of the conversation, and she was able to identify that her living room had two exits, and planned to sit near one of them, with a clear path towards the other should she need to escape quickly. She also felt safer there because there were fewer things that could be used as weapons. We talked about what behaviors her abuser exhibited prior to escalating. He would often scratch his arm before a physical incident, so she planned to leave the house quickly if she noticed this behavior. We talked about where she could park her car, keep her keys, and if she felt comfortable calling the police for help. We also talked about how she could plan ahead with his mother who would be present for the conversation, and they were able to develop a code word that, if said, would alert the mother to send a text to a friend asking them to send the police.
When I first started answering the hotline, realizing that I would be the person safety planning with the survivors who called was perhaps the most intimidating part of the job. But what I’ve come to learn is that safety planning is something that we all do every day. When you are going to meet someone for a first date and you work out a system to have your friends call you with a fake emergency … that’s safety planning. When you teach your child to find a person in a uniform if they ever get separated from you on the train… that’s safety planning.
If someone in your life is experiencing abuse, you can help them first just by being there for them and reducing their isolation. It may feel uncomfortable to start asking more serious questions and thinking in terms of safety planning, but the more we practice, the better we will become. I ask things like, “What do you think is going to happen? Has this happened before? If you notice things are escalating, is it possible to relocate to a safer room? Is there a code word you can use with your kids, neighbors, or friends, that if it is said will alert them to call the police?”
Start by becoming aware that safety planning is something you’re already doing. The term may still sound daunting, but give yourself some credit. Try talking through some hypothetical situations with a friend. And remember that REACH’s 24-hour hotline is always available.
If you or someone you know needs help planning for safety, call REACH’s toll-free hotline at 1-800-899-4000.