BFL’s Secret Garden Program: Insights On Safety Planning As A Crucial Part of Domestic Violence Counseling
For persons involved in abusive relationships, many steps must be taken to ensure their security. Developing a safety plan for residents at both Barrier Free Living’s Freedom House Domestic Violence Shelter for People with Disabilities, and our Secret Garden domestic violence counseling program, is an essential component of this process.
Traditionally persons received a handout of safety guidelines upon receiving services at a domestic violence agency. The safety guidelines include information for de-escalating potential incidents of violence as well as information like essential items to take when planning to leave a batterer, such as birth certificates, social security card/s, medications, checking account information, or any necessary assistive devices.
It’s worth noting that in some cases, however, it can be dangerous to give a handout on safety planning tips to an individual you are working with. It could place the victim in danger if their abuser discovers the handout.
Safety planning is as an ongoing, custom made, and continuously evolving process. Plans take into account the persons immediate needs, from entering shelter to learning ways to recognize potentially dangerous situations, as well as their long-term needs, such as securing housing or learning how to complete activities of daily living more independently.
Factors such as a persons financial resources, social supports, current living situation, location of their abuser, and need for assistive devices, medication, or home care are all taken into account when customizing a safety plan.
It is not always possible to immediately leave one’s home. A comprehensive safety plan includes ways to plan leaving with all of a person’s necessary equipment, medication, and documentation without raising the suspicion of the batterer. A comprehensive plan also includes ways to recognize and de-escalate a violent or potentially violent incident. Furthermore, important contacts and supports should be identified in advance, such as friends, neighbors, or family members that could be contacted in an emergency, the local precinct, and the domestic violence liaisons in the person’s precinct.
It can be helpful to develop a code word or action to use with neighbors to signal the person is in danger. For example, one man worked out the following code with his neighbors: when he hit the pipe in his room 3 times, the upstairs neighbors knew to call the police.
Safety plans should also be developed for persons who have chosen not to leave their abuser or who are not yet ready to plan for leaving. Many of the elements of the safety plan are the same in this scenario; for instance, persons should still have emergency contacts with the police, support systems with others, and contact numbers for domestic violence shelters in the event of an emergency. Again, safety plans must be reviewed regularly for revisions and additions as each person’s situation changes.
Identifying contacts such as supportive friends, family, a support group, or a victim advocate that persons can speak with when they are overwhelmed can go a long way in assisting a victim of domestic violence. Victim advocates and domestic violence professionals who are knowledgeable about the dynamics of domestic violence and the local resources in their area can help as persons explore their options.
Lastly, safety planning can still be conducted for persons who are not in abusive relationships are who are now safe from abusive relationships. Domestic violence education is perhaps one of the most powerful tools to help instill safety. Workers in the field of domestic violence and abuse provide education about warning signs of potentially abusive situations and persons, and information on signs of healthy versus unhealthy relationships. This gives people necessary tools to recognize potentially dangerous
For more information about developing a safety plan, please visit the following websites: New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Center Against Domestic Violence
To speak with a person knowledgeable about safety planning and abusive relationships, please call the Barrier Free Living Domestic Violence Hotline between the hours of 9:00am-5:00pm EST at (212) 533-4358.
A safety plan is a list of strategies to protect oneself from harm, and it can be developed prior to an incident of domestic violence. Below is a sample of a well thought-out safety plan.
Domestic Violence Safety Plan
(Everyone has a right to be safe!)
I. Safety During an Explosive Incident
- If an argument seems unavoidable, try to have it in a room or area that has access to an exit. Avoid the bathroom, kitchen, or any room with weapons.
- Practice how to get out of your home safely. Identify which doors, windows, elevator or stairwell would be best.
- Have a packed bag ready and keep it in an undisclosed but accessible place in order to leave quickly.
- Identify a neighbor you can tell about the violence and ask that they call the police if they hear a disturbance coming from your home.
- Devise a code word to use with your children, family, friends, and neighbors when you need the police
- Use your own instincts and judgment. If the situation is very dangerous, consider giving the abuser what he wants to calm him down. You have the right to protect yourself until you are out of danger.
- Decide and plan for where you will go if you have to leave home (even if you do not think you will need to)
- Always remember—you don’t deserve to be hit or threatened!
II. Safety When Preparing to Leave
- Open a savings account in your own name to start to establish or increase your independence. Think of other ways in which you can increase your independence.
- If your batterer frequently calls you on your cell phone, do not change your number (this could lead to your batterer increasing his efforts to locate you). Instead, get a second phone that only your closest friends and family have. Similarly, think about getting a second e-mail address that your batterer does not have access to.
- Leave money, an extra set of keys, copies of important documents and extra clothes with someone you trust so you can leave quickly.
- Determine who would be able to let you stay with them or lend you some money.
- Keep the shelter phone numbers close at hand and keep some change or a calling card on you at all times for emergency phone calls. (Remember the NYC 24 hour domestic violence hotline number—1-800-621-HOPE / 1-800-621-4673)
- Review your safety plan as often as possible in order to plan the safest way to leave your batterer. Remember: Leaving your batterer is the most dangerous time.
Below is a story about Ms. L, a survivor of domestic violence and former client of the Secret Garden, who was able to utilize the safety plan she developed with her advocate to gain safety from her abuser.
Ms. L was a 58 year old woman with Multiple Sclerosis who reported that her partner of ten years had been emotionally abusive for the duration of their relationship. At the age of 53 Ms. L began using a wheelchair due to the progression of her M.S.
She reported that soon after she began using her wheelchair her partner became physically abusive; the abuse escalated to the point she feared for her life.
When Ms. L first began working with staff at the Secret Garden she was not sure if she wanted to leave her partner because she relied on him for help with daily activities. Her workers informed Ms. L of all of her options for safety, which included getting an order of protection, a home attendant for assistance with activities of daily living, and entering domestic violence shelter.
Ms. L worked together with her advocate to develop a customized safety plan specific to her needs and living situation. Her plan was not written down on a piece of paper, because her batterer routinely searched their home. Instead Ms. L repeated her plan to her advocate several times during their sessions in order to memorize it.
She was able to identify two people that she confides in about her abusive situation; she developed code words to use on the phone with them that signified she was in danger.
Through analyzing past abusive incidents with her advocate, she was able to identify patterns to the abuse and warning signs of abuse that were specific to her partner. This enabled her to identify potentially violent situations before they occurred. She learned to stay close to her front door whenever possible during an argument, and to avoid the kitchen and bathroom due to the multiple hard surfaces in each room that could contribute to a serious physical injury in an argument.
Ms. L was also given a 911 cell phone to keep with her at all times so she could call the police if necessary. In occupational therapy she learned different ways to complete some of her daily tasks so she did not need her batterer’s assistance as frequently.
While Ms. L opted not to leave her abusive relationship, she said the tools she learned while at Secret Garden helped increase her safety. Ms. L stated that she knows what she needs to prepare in advance if she does decide to leave. She also stated that her ability to do more things independently without the assistance of her batterer improved her overall self confidence.