Leaving an Abusive Relationship: How to Protect Yourself

Here are some steps to help protect yourself and your children when leaving an abusive relationship.

If you're in a violent relationship, your first priority is very simple: Get yourself and your kids to safety. Statistics show that the most dangerous time for women living with batterers is the point at which they leave the relationship. (The vast majority of battered spouses or partners are women, but if you are a battered man, all of this advice applies to you as well.)

This means that you will need to find housing somewhere that the abuser can't find you—a battered women's shelter, a hotel, or the home of a friend that the abuser doesn't know. Don't go to your parents' house, your best friend's house, or somewhere else that he's likely to look for you.

COVID-19 Update: The coronavirus outbreak has impacted how the courts and domestic violence organizations are able to operate. To learn how their services are affected and what resources are still available to you while shelter-in-place orders are in place, see our article, Temporary Restraining Orders.

Planning for Safety

If you have time to plan, start putting aside cash -- again, preferably somewhere other than your house. Leave some clothes and important items with a friend in case you have to leave your house quickly. And start documenting every incident of physical or emotional abuse in your household, whether it involves you or your kids. Make a note of the date and time the incident occurred, and exactly what happened.

In addition, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) advises that you:

  • make a list of safe people to contact
  • memorize phone numbers of people or places you could call for help
  • keep change (for a pay phone, as you may find yourself without a cell phone) with you at all times, as well as cash for living expenses, and
  • establish a code word with family, friends, and coworkers so that you can tell them to call for help without alerting the abuser.

You should also prepare to take important papers with you. Having the right documents will help you take legal action or apply for benefits after you leave. Again, the NCADV offers good advice, suggesting that you take:

  • your credit cards and checkbook
  • social security cards
  • birth certificates
  • copies of deeds, leases, and insurance policies
  • proof of income for you and the abusive spouse or partner, such as pay stubs or copies of W-2 forms
  • copies of bank or credit card statements if you cannot easily access them online, and
  • any documentation that proves past abuse, including photographs, police reports, or medical records.

If You Have to Leave Quickly

If you have to leave your home quickly to get away from an abusive relationship, go to court immediately for a protective order that requires the abuser to stay away from you. If you have children, be sure the order gives you custody. Otherwise, you may be accused of kidnapping.

If you have the resources, it's wise to hire a lawyer at this point. But don't worry if you can't afford to pay for legal assistance; there are many resources available to help you. If you go to a shelter, the staff should be able to help you find legal assistance quickly to file the necessary papers.

Many courts have domestic violence resources, including restraining order packets with instructions, clinics with clerks who can help you with the paperwork, or judges who are available to sign restraining orders and custody orders on very short notice. In some places, you have access to the court 24 hours a day.

Usually, you also will be able to quickly find help with delivering legal documents to your spouse; the local sheriff's office is usually charged with this task. You have to get the papers delivered (served) before they take effect.

(For more detailed information, see our article on Temporary Restraining Orders.)

After You Leave

Whether you had time to plan or had to leave in a hurry, there are steps you can take to stay safe once you're away from the abuser. Immediately change your phone number and don't answer the phone unless you know who is calling. Be sure that your new phone number is unlisted and blocked so that it can't be easily discovered. You may also want to rent a post office box or arrange to have your mail delivered to the address of a friend or family member.

If the abuser does contact you, make a note of when, how, and what happened. If you have a restraining order, keep it with you at all times. If you believe the terms of the order have been violated, call the police or contact the court right away.

Here are some additional suggestions from the NCADV:

  • if you are staying in your home, have the locks changed
  • don't stay alone
  • change your routine frequently
  • think about how you'll get away if the abuser confronts you
  • if you have to meet the abuser, do so in a very public place
  • contact people you trust at your workplace and your children's school so they can be alert to anything unusual.

Child Custody and Visitation Concerns

If you share legal custody of your children with an abusive spouse or partner, you can make arrangements for neutral pickup sites or for others to pick up and drop off your kids, and you can have your contact information kept private and out of court records.

If you have sole custody of your children, but the judge has ordered some type of visitation, you can ask that conditions be put on it, such as supervision or a requirement that your spouse can't drink or use drugs when with the kids, or that certain friends, relatives, or associates of your spouse can't be around the kids.

If restraining orders are in effect, or if you don't think it's safe to be in the same place as your spouse, you can choose a public place to meet for visitation exchanges. Your local police station is a good choice, or you can use a restaurant or other very public setting.

In extreme cases, you can ask the court to appoint a visitation supervision monitor and arrange for the drop-off and pickup to be staggered in time, with the monitor watching the kids in between. If you have other creative ideas, propose them to the judge. Most judges will consider any plan that will keep everyone safe and facilitate visitation at the same time.

When looking for help as a victim of abuse, remember to consider how private your computer, Internet, and phone use are. Consider whether there's anything you can and should do to prevent someone else from learning that you're doing research or seeking help. Some victims, for instance, might use the same computer or device as the abuser or might have a phone plan that allows the abuser to see the calls they make and receive. Other kinds of technology, like home security cameras and GPS in phones and cars, can also allow for monitoring by the abuser.

Adapted from Nolo's Essential Guide to Divorce, by Emily Doskow.

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