Friday, October 7, 2011

Why You Really Do Need a Safety Plan - Part I

Why this series:  I talk about safety planning a lot because I'm a domestic violence advocate and the women who come to the nonprofit where I offer my time are trying to modify or leave relationships that have more than the usual problems.  Yet the response I often get, even from someone who has just been in court asking for a Restraining Order against her spouse (same thing as a Protective Order), is "No, I don't need to do any safety planning.  I have it covered."

Time passes, and without fail, there's another incident, usually something that could have been prevented or at least made unlikely with some prior actions on our client's part, yet even then safety planning is far from her thoughts.  She's shocked, rattled, dismayed, can't quite believe the new situation.  Safety planning still remains a hard sell.

I feel frustrated and helpless.  Now is not the time to tell the woman in front of me "Why didn't you listen to me?  We could have taken some simple steps to protect your property (privacy, money, or whatever)."  This series of articles on safety planning, to be honest, is as much to calm my frustration as it is to give you a heads up about protecting yourself.  Let's hope both of us get some benefit from the information that follows.


Situation:  Brenda is faced with the possibility that she may not be able to salvage her 10-year marriage to Brad, who has lost his promising career and responded to the stress by becoming unpredictable, hostile, and, Brenda suspects,  using drugs, maybe meth or cocaine.  She asks him to leave and he goes to stay with a friend, leaving her and two school-aged children in the family home. 

Brad misses the children, so Brenda allows him to visit them on Saturday afternoon while she goes out.  While she is absent, and in front of the children, Brad packs and moves valuable items from the home, including some of the children's toys.  On Brenda's return, he says he wants the children to have some of their things at his new place, and besides half of everything belongs to him so he can do whatever he wants.  Brenda is horrified, and now has to deal with two confused and upset children, who do not understand why Dad took their toys.

Later, Brenda realizes that all the money from the children's college account is missing, and that Brad went into her computer and deleted or copied things from the hard drive.  A few weeks later, Brenda realizes she is not getting any mail.  At the post office, she discovers Brad put in a change of address for the family and all mail is now going to his friend's house.

Brenda feels violated and is in a state of panic.  She doesn't know what Brad will do next.  She retains a divorce attorney, who refers her to a domestic violence services organization near her.  Things will get worse before they get better, but at least Brenda is making a start at getting an out-of-control situation toward a more stable "new normal".

What could Brenda have done differently?  Brenda is not a stupid person, and she is hardly to be blamed for not anticipating situations completely out of her experience with Brad or anyone else for that matter.  But there are some things Brenda could have done to protect herself, family finances and property, and her peace of mind.

The first thing Brenda could have done when living with Brad became so strained that she was considering asking him to move out is call a domestic violence hotline for a confidential conversation with someone who could listen to her and give her some perspective on what might be happening, and what might happen next.  This person could help her evaluate Brad's potential to be dangerous, something which might be hard for Brenda to face, but severe stressors and drug use raise the risk of something very bad happening.

Why a domestic violence hotline?  (Brenda doesn't want to go into a DV shelter and she may be angry and frustrated with Brad, but she may not be afraid of him.)  Because domestic violence personnel are uniquely equipped, unlike therapists, clergy, marriage counselors, family doctors, and even police, to have a calm, frank, nonjudgmental conversation about what's going on behind the closed doors that every family presents to the world.

Brenda could also have looked to the collective wisdom of the internet, which, though no one source is infallible, offers so many points of view that if you are looking to learn about your situation, bits and pieces can add up to quite an education in a short time.  She might even have read an article like this one.

Resource Quick List:

National Domestic Violence Hotline - They care about your safety on the computer and give instructions up front about how to keep your visit to the hotline from being tracked.

Safety Planning - Same site as above.  This is the direct link to safety planning resources.

How Dangerous Is Your Partner?

Brenda could have gone to the library or bookstore and done some browsing in the marriage self-help/divorce strategies section.  She could start reading a copy of  "Why Does He Do That" by Lundy Bancroft.  Chances are good she will find her story in its pages, along with an outstanding analysis and prediction of what lies ahead for her and the children.  Scary?  Maybe a bit.  But at this point Brenda is already scared, and adding being completely in the dark about her situation isn't helping.  Some expert advice and wisdom is just what she needs.

Any of the above could have alerted her to how vulnerable she was - Brad has moved out but they have not gone to court to get an order for temporary custody arrangements.  Alerted her to the need to change her locks, secure her mail with a PO box, change the passwords on all the computers and online bank access, and not let Brad back into the home. 

In other words, Brenda could have been proactive rather than reactive.  To get a protective order something bad has to have happened - a protective or restraining order restricts a person's civil rights and Brenda would need to show cause before a judge will order one put into effect - but Brad's lower-level but nonetheless traumatizing behaviors are aimed at making Brenda's life miserable, and it is up to Brenda to think about what might happen and plan accordingly.

The thinking here is very much like planning for a power outage from a snowstorm, or an earthquake, or a flood.  The upsetting influence is another human rather than an act of God, but the mindset is similar.  Because this is someone you loved, and probably still love, it can be difficult to be proactive, but maybe reading Brenda's story will give you some hints as to why it is worth taking another look at safety planning.

(Graphic by Keith Haring)

Part 2: Stalking - Why You Don't See It Coming

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