Ensure Victims of Domestic Violence Receive Risk Assessment and Safety Planning at All Points of Contact with Helping Professionals
During the Project’s 15 years of evaluating the coordinated community response to domestic violence and researching known system contacts within reviewed cases, it has consistently been noted that victims are substantially more likely to be in contact with responders other than domestic violence programs. This continues to be a troublesome indicator of the potential lack of comprehensive risk assessment and safety planning conducted with these victims. Only 17 percent of victims in reviewed cases were known to have contact with a domestic violence advocacy program in the five years prior to their death; just 1 percent contacted a sexual assault center.
Typically, advocates from domestic violence and sexual assault programs are among the few service providers with specialized expertise in developing potentially life-saving safety plans. The low percentage of victims who connected with community-based advocates likely means the majority who were later killed by their abusers never had the benefit of safety planning and risk assessment. Sadly, in many reviewed cases, it seemed obvious these interventions could have significantly altered the outcome of the situation.
WHAT IS SAFETY PLANNING?
A safety plan is a tool developed with the victim, which is designed to identify known issues within their relationship and increase their physical and emotional safety. Safety plans can be either formal documents or informal discussions about risk factors and ways to stay safe. Safety plans should consider various scenarios the victim may encounter with their abuser, and should identify plausible steps which can be taken to minimize the likelihood they will be victimized in the future.
While the victim cannot control the abuser’s actions, they know their relationship better than anyone else, and are often able to predict stressors or scenarios which may prompt future abuse or contact. Thus, the victim is in the best position to determine points of concern and to plan around them. Safety plans often include steps which can be taken should the victim need to flee abuse or stay safer during an episode of abuse, identify supportive individuals the victim can contact for assistance and support, and incorporate ways the victim can address their emotional needs during times of crisis.
In order for a safety plan to successfully reduce the likelihood of future abusive incidents, it must be:
- Victim-centered and survivor-driven. A successful safety plan must address the issues the victim sees as adversely affecting their safety. The plan must also be designed around the victim’s real-life experience and activities. Issues such as the age of the victim, their support network, and the resources they have access to should be considered. Generic safety plans may be useful as an educational tool, but the more tailored a plan is to a victim’s life, the more successful it will be in addressing any dangers in their current or former relationship.
- Specific. A great safety plan prompts the victim to evaluate specific steps they can take to reduce future risk of abuse. Identifying the safest location in their home for when violence begins to escalate, where to leave an escape bag, how to safely grow an emergency fund, and determining ways the victim can alter her daily routine to minimize contact with an abuser are specific enough to be rehearsed. The more a victim can mentally rehearse her plan, the more likely it is to be followed.
- Practical. The safety plan must be achievable by the victim with minimal barriers. For example, a plan which includes an expensive security system when the victim is living paycheck-to-paycheck is not practical. That plan will not only be ignored but may deter the victim from seeking assistance in the future if they feel their time was wasted or the plan was not helpful.
- Built around risk assessment and lethality indicators. While educating the victim about potential risks is an important part of preventing future violence, safety planning success hinges on addressing current risk. In order to develop a successful safety plan, it must be rooted in known risk and should consider any lethality indicators which may be present.
WHEN SHOULD SAFETY PLANNING TAKE PLACE?
Risk is reduced when victims have a personalized, practical plan that includes ways to remain safe while in a relationship, planning to leave, or after leaving. Safety is fluid and can change over time as the circumstances and dynamics of the relationship change. For this reason, safety planning must be an adaptable and ongoing process, not a one-time product.
It is well established that a domestic violence victim is at higher risk for serious injury or death when she is leaving an abusive relationship. In almost all reviewed cases, the victim was either contemplating ending the relationship, making preparations to leave the relationship, or had already taken obvious steps signaling a desire to end the relationship. Because the end of a relationship signals an increased likelihood of lethal violence, safety planning is imperative.
Fatality reviews revealed that in the months and weeks prior to many of the homicides, victims were taking steps indicating an increasing desire to separate from their abusers. Some clear indicators included physically separating from the perpetrator by moving out or “breaking up.” Other victims indicated their intent to terminate the relationship via the court system; a TPO was in effect at the time of the homicide in 13 percent of reviewed cases, and in 14 percent there was a divorce in process at the time of the homicide.
Diane and Richard began dating in high school and were together for more than a decade before his escalating physical and emotional abuse caused Diane to decide to break off the relationship. In the weeks leading up to her death, she began to assert her independence from Richard. She increased the amount of time she spent with her friends and her social life flourished. She also purchased a gun for protection and began looking for her own home. Friends and family informed a Fatality Review Team that around the same time, Richard became increasingly paranoid about Diane’s whereabouts. She had to cut time with friends and family short to avoid issues with him. Just a week after Richard was served with divorce papers, he shot Diane multiple times, killing her.
Even if the abuser is not aware the victim has a concrete plan to leave, subtler steps towards separation may have also been noted. In several reviewed cases, the victims were emotionally separating from their abusers, finding out what local resources existed and talking with people in their support systems about plans to end the relationship. Many victims were taking steps which fostered their ability to gain independence from the perpetrator. Saving money, rejoining the workforce, furthering their education, learning to speak English, reconnecting with their support system, and obtaining their own transportation all provided clues to the abuser they were losing control over the victim.
Because even the inference of relationship changes can create risk to the victim, safety planning must be conducted at all points of contact with victims, by all service providers and systems responders with whom they make contact. Safety planning should also continue with each subsequent contact. Many victims in reviewed cases were navigating very dangerous situations without the benefit of survivor-centered safety planning and risk assessment.
CONSULT A SAFETY PLANNING EXPERT (UNTIL YOU BECOME ONE)
Because leaving an abusive relationship can be a dangerous process requiring planning and preparation, the importance of conducting comprehensive, survivor-centered safety planning at every contact with victims cannot be overstated. As long as victim safety is consistently prioritized, any attempt at safety planning by non-advocates is better than no attempt. Though developing these plans is not rocket science, contacting an advocate for assistance in developing a victim’s plan is encouraged. Even after honing your skills in risk assessment and safety planning, providing a referral to a domestic violence program is among the best ways to assist victims in achieving ongoing safety and support.
Many victims and their support systems are often not aware a domestic violence program exists in their community. Others are not aware of the full range of services these programs provide, and some may not believe they qualify for services. There are several possible reasons for this. Perhaps the victim may:
- be reluctant to identify as a “victim”
- believe what she is experiencing is “not bad enough” to be considered abuse
- think “shelter” is the only service offered and may not want or need it
- have a criminal history, substance abuse issue, or untreated mental health issue
- be afraid the abuser will find out they sought assistance
- have had negative past experiences or a negative perception of receiving assistance
- have cultural beliefs about relationships and gender roles which create barriers to reaching out for help
Because of the lack of awareness of resources, other agencies and providers often act as a bridge to an advocate. A warm referral to advocacy or safety planning which is conducted in tandem with a domestic violence program by a non-advocate will make a difference in the lives of victims.
There are approximately 65 domestic violence programs in Georgia; 51 of these offer safe shelter. These programs provide their services free of charge. Services are confidential and victims can access services whether they choose to leave their relationship or not. Most domestic violence programs offer services including the following:
- 24-hour crisis line
- support groups
- financial assistance
- legal advocacy
- child advocacy
- individual counseling
- safety planning
- emergency shelter
You can reach a local domestic violence program by calling 1(800) 33-HAVEN [1 (800) 334-2836]. A list of the state-certified domestic violence programs can also be located at GCADV.org/domestic-violence-centers.
STEPS GEORGIA CAN TAKE TO ENSURE VICTIMS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE RECEIVE RISK ASSESSMENT AND SAFETY PLANNING AT ALL POINTS OF CONTACT WITH HELPING PROFESSIONALS:
- Secure basic safety planning training for all responders and service providers. Training on safety planning provides an excellent opportunity to bridge the gap between domestic violence programs and other agencies in contact with victims, and enhances the coordinated community response to intimate partner violence.
- Make contact information for domestic violence programs available on a widespread basis in all of Georgia’s communities. Both traditional and non-traditional systems will benefit from referral information for supportive services such as the statewide domestic violence hotline 1 (800) 33-HAVEN [1 (800) 334-2836] and local domestic violence programs. Domestic violence programs and task forces should consider developing materials such as palm cards, resource guides, and other awareness materials which can be distributed in their communities. Posters and other awareness resources are also available for download at GeorgiaFatalityReview.com.
- Ensure domestic violence and sexual assault advocates are well versed in safety planning beyond times of acute crisis. Because risk and safety fluctuate over time, it is necessary that advocates are skilled in safety planning with victims who are both in and out of the relationship. Resources such as Jill Davies’ book, Safety Planning with Battered Women: Complex Lives/Difficult Choices and her guide for advocates, “Advocacy Beyond Leaving: Helping Battered Women in Contact with Current and Former Partners” provide skill-building reading which will increase safety planning capacities.