Safety Planning
last updated February 1, 2006

Women are usually the best judges of the dangers their abusers pose to them. An advocate can help a battered woman assess the risk the batterer poses to her and develop a practical plan to keep herself safe. While evaluating risks and creating safety plans can help a woman, safety planning is no guarantee that she will not be injured.

A safety plan is a plan a woman makes in which she identifies ways she can protect herself during a violent incident and reduce the risk of serious harm. It is likely that the woman has already engaged in significant safety planning in the past. As Jill Davies explains, "when a woman experiences violence she responds to it, tries to figure out why it happened and how she can prevent or survive it in the future." Although she may not characterize this response as a "safety plan," past efforts to respond to the violence and the effect of those efforts can provide useful information about what options may help keep her safe and what options may be more dangerous.

The task of the advocate is to help the woman evaluate these options and, based on this evaluation, create a safety strategy or plan. The woman will follow the plan if she finds herself in immediate danger or if she must leave her home to preserve her safety. When counseling a woman on the issue of safety, an advocate must discuss whether the woman plans to stay in her home or plans to leave her abuser. If the woman wishes to stay in her home, she should plan to protect herself in the case of an incident to avoid injury or death. A woman must make other arrangements if she plans to leave. Does she have money? Is there a safe place she can stay? Has she considered that her husband may look for her? An advocate must discuss different approaches with a victim because she may change her mind before fully implementing any safety plan. She must also be prepared to change and revise her plan if something does not work.

Safety plans should be prepared for a number of different situations in which battered women may find themselves. Those situations include during a violent incident, preparing to leave, after leaving, and at her place of employment. Each of these situations is associated with different risks. Advocates can help women assess the risks to their safety and autonomy in each of these contexts, generate options, and evaluate those options. Evaluating options includes anticipating the consequences of each action and determining which option best increases safety and autonomy.

Planning for safety during a violent incident involves determining how best to exit the home or finding lower-risk places to go if an argument occurs. Places with no exits, such as bathrooms or closets, or that provide access to weapons, such as kitchens or garages, are unlikely to be safe places. Women should also develop a list of people they might contact in an emergency, or places they might go if they leave. They should memorize these emergency numbers and have a phone card or money for phone calls at all times. It can also be useful to establish a code word or sign so that co-workers, family, friends or neighbors will know when to call for help.

Planning for safety when preparing to leave can involve gathering important documents and keeping them in a safe place. When a battered woman leaves a relationship, her batterer may retaliate by destroying her personal property and documents. Because of the danger of retaliation, it may be useful to leave a copy of important documents as well as extra clothes, money or keys with a third party.

Documents that she might want to keep safe include identification cards, marriage and birth certificates, marriage licenses, deeds or leases, a checkbook, credit cards, and bank statements. Any documents that can be used to establish the existence of abuse should also be kept safe. The Women's Rural Advocacy Programs offers an emergency checklist of documents and other items to take when leaving.

Women are at the greatest risk after leaving an abuser, and may be stalked or killed by their former partner. It is therefore critical for a woman who has left her abuser and has obtained alternative housing to plan for her safety in that residence. This planning may involve thinking about safe places or escape routes in that residence; it may be useful to change the telephone number or to keep it a secret, and to change the locks if the batterer has a key. If it is necessary to meet the batterer, the woman should do so in public and in the presence of others.

Planning for safety at the workplace may involve informing employers and co-workers that she has left the relationship; they can help screen her calls at work and inform her if he appears or otherwise attempts to find or contact her. Other strategies include traveling to work with another person, changing routes used to travel to work, informing building security, and parking close to the entrance. The Family Violence Prevention Fund provides a detailed overview of workplace safety planning.

If the victim has obtained an order of protection, she should keep it with her at all times. If the children are also protected by the order, she may want to forward the order to the administrators her children's school, to reduce the risk of abduction.

Once created, safety plans should be reviewed periodically to ensure that they still meet the victim's needs and are consistent with any changed circumstances. Reviewing the safety plans also helps keep the strategies fresh in the victim's mind.

Jill Davies, Safety Planning (1997), provides a comprehensive overview of the different kinds of risks battered women might face in different contexts. The article explains that safety planning must take into account more than physical risks; rather, such planning must also account for other kinds of risk factors. As she emphasizes, for safety plans to be effective, they "must be comprehensive, meeting basic human needs and providing a life plan, not just strategies to respond to physical violence." For example, because a woman's economic dependence can be used by a batterer to further his power and control, her safety plan could focus on ways in which she could become more economically independent. In the CEE/FSU region, a lack of alternative housing may be a primary obstacle to leaving an abusive relationship. A safety plan might take this factor into consideration in two ways. First, a woman may reject certain options if these options would require her to leave to protect herself. Second, she may want to focus her safety plan on what she would do if she needed emergency housing, or ways she might be able to obtain alternative housing.

Finally, individuals who provide services to battered women must ensure that their actions do not jeopardize their client's safety. Service providers can work to ensure that they do not endanger their clients by following the guidelines for advocates, particularly those regarding confidentiality.

Safety plans that can be personalized to fit specific needs and situations are available through Chances & Changes, and the Women's Rural Advocacy Programs, in downloadable and web formats. Comprehensive information about the safety planning process is available from Safe Horizon, the Family Violence Prevention Fund, the American Bar Association, and the Coos County Women's Crisis Service.