Safety Planning for Domestic Violence Survivors in the Wake of the Pandemic

written by: Maxwell Couture, LMHC

What to do when quarantined with your abuser?

The current coronavirus outbreak has caused a slew of social problems for everyone. Social distancing, shortages of food and toiletry supplies, and for some, mandated quarantining. However, not everyone is experiencing the lockdown in the same way; domestic violence survivors are at a greater risk than most individuals are, especially when they still reside with their abuser in their home.

When you understand that domestic violence centers around three primary factors: power, control, and manipulation, a very dangerous picture begins to emerge. Isolation, considered a red flag of potentially abusive relationships among DV experts, is a tactic commonly used by abusers. Utilizing their status or abusing their power to control their victims, abusive persons will tend to isolate their victims so they cannot reach out for help from their social circles, family members, or community agencies meant to serve the oppressed.

In the current pandemic, we are seeing the virus become weaponized by abusers. Recent reports from the National Domestic Violence Hotline website, abusers are using the virus as an opportunity to continue to manipulate and maintain control over their victims [i]. Threats of kicking them out of the house if they cough or sneeze for fears of contracting the virus, leaving them on the streets or in hospitals alone. Telling them that they can’t leave because they could potentially bring the virus back to the house and spread the infection around.

These tactics are not unusual for an abusive person; however, the context is unprecedented. So what do we do when we are trapped with an abuser? How do we stay safe?

Safety Planning

The principal tool any survivor should have when faced with a potentially dangerous situation is a safety plan. If you enter any certified domestic violence center, this will be the first thing you work on with your advocate. What constitutes a safety plan? That is survivor-driven. The survivor knows best and they know their abuser the best, they understand all their nuances; what makes them mad or upset, where they go during the day, essentially, they know how they can stay safe. You can find an Interactive Guide to Safety Planning here.[ii]

Working with this knowledge it becomes easy to start to formulate a safety plan. One should always have a bagged packed and ready to go with the essentials as long as you can keep it safe and undiscoverable. This is an important part of getting away quickly with some provisions. Have a backup of important documents: driver’s license or other form of ID, birth certificates for the kids, health insurance cards, some financial card or cash. Have a list of safe places and phone numbers you can call in case you are in a bind without a cell phone. Knowing street addresses is also key when you don’t have access to the internet immediately. Using a code word with friends or neighbors can help communicate the situation without being obvious.

Safety Planning with Kids

Understandably, when children are involved things can get tricky. Children have a proclivity to blab about things they hear (can’t blame them) they are just trying to make sense of their world and they hear everything. When safety planning with children, it is paramount they understand as much as they need (but not too much) to stay safe and to not interfere in case something goes wrong. Children will want to get involved or between to parents when they are fighting which can result in them getting hurt themselves.

It is pertinent that the children also know how to dial 911, know who are safe persons in their lives, know how to get to their house (if in close proximity), and know where to go in their own house that is a safe spot, usually with more than one exit. Children should also have a bag ready to go with a couple of their toys and change of clothes so that they have some comforts in case there is a need to leave. It can also be useful to have a code word or phrase for your children so they understand what needs to happen. Most importantly, you want to practice getting out, just like if there’s a fire, you’ll want to know what to do in case it happens for real. However, what if getting out of the house isn’t so easy? Isolation puts survivors and their children (or pets) at greater risk because they are constantly being watched and may not have access to telephones or the internet to communicate they are in danger.

Community Partners

Throughout the nation, there are certified domestic violence and women’s centers dedicated to helping survivors and their loved ones affected by domestic violence recover and get to safety. However, during the pandemic many centers are limiting the number of beds available or shutting their shelter doors for new arrivals in fear of spreading the virus around. Homeless shelters are also beginning to turn the less fortunate away to stem the spread of the virus. However, there are still many entities and resources available.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline website is filled with resources, tips, and links to further information to help victims stay safe. They have a hotline for victims and survivors that is staffed around the clock. They invite those who are in need of assistance or support to contact them at 1-800-799-7233. They even provide an option for victims who feel they are unable to find a safe place for a phone call to log onto or text LOVEIS to 22522.

If you find yourself or your kids trapped in a dangerous situation or if you know anyone who may be at risk of abuse or intimate partner violence, know there is help even during this crisis.