By Dr. Elizabeth Degi DuBois, PhD, and Christy A. Zlatkus, Esquire
There’s a common trope across the globe that women experiencing violence at the hands of their boyfriend or spouse should ‘just leave’. In reality, each year, thousands of women literally die trying to leave abusive spouses. The point of departure can be one of the most dangerous milestones for women escaping abuse.
Planning when and how to leave is absolutely useful if you have time to contemplate your exit, but sometimes delaying in order to plan puts you in greater danger than getting out fast. What should you do when you need to leave without prior planning time?
If your partnership or marriage has reached a tipping point where you are afraid for your safety, do not ignore your intuition. Too many women stay because we’ve been socialized to gloss over conflict, because we think our partners will change, because we worry we will be unable to survive financially on our own, because we worry what our friends or family will think of us, or because we question whether it’s ‘that bad’. Don’t gaslight yourself into believing you’re overreacting if your brain is setting off alarm bells. Your emotional barometer is there for a reason: to keep you alive.
As a divorce attorney who has handled many cases involving domestic violence and a soon-to-be PhD who’s researched domestic violence across the globe, we have one overarching piece of advice: If you’re wondering if it’s ‘that bad’, it is. Stop doubting yourself, and get out. Here are some tips for how to get out fast:
1. When in doubt, just get out
Screaming matches can escalate into actual violence very, very quickly – with even more drastic consequences if you’re one of the millions of families that keep personal firearms in the house.
2. What To Grab When You Go
Keep in mind that no possession – including IDs and vital paperwork – is worth dying for. That being said, if you are able to safely collect a few items, this is what to grab:
Vital Documents, including your birth certificate, passport, and social security card. If you have children, grab their documents as well.
Medicine for you and your kiddos
Marriage certificate, if you’re married to your partner.
Green card, immigration papers, and work permits if relevant.
That’s it. Clothes and prized possessions can be replaced; don’t waste time loading your car or packing your suitcase, just get out.
3. Take Your Children With You
When facing an immediate threat, bring your children with you, even if your abuser is their other parent. One common tactic abusers use to retain control is to threaten to keep the kids or press kidnapping charges if their co-parent flees with the kids in tow. Don’t fall for this. A parent can be charged with parental kidnapping when barring access to the child that runs counter to a court custody order, but that is a wildly different scenario than fleeing immediate danger – Courts know this, and rule accordingly.
Your priority in the moment is to get to safety. If your partner is threating to call the police if you take the kids, great. Let him make that call as you peel out of the driveway. The Court and police can sort out who did what after you are out of immediate danger and can set up a schedule for both of you to spend time with the children in a safe manner.
4. Run for safe cover
When we’re scared, turning to family and friends for comfort is natural. But if you’re fleeing abuse, staying with people your abuser knows may put you back in harm’s way, especially if the person you are staying with doesn’t have the full story of the abuse. If you are uncertain if friends or family would be able to help you find safety and you have not already researched domestic violence shelters, go to a police station. If you’re still in the process of contemplating leaving, you can find a list of shelters through DomesticShelters.org, or by calling the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline (link is external) at 800-799-SAFE (7233).
5. Ditch your SIM card
Abusers can easily track you using your phone. Ditch that SIM card (you don’t have to throw it away, just turn off your phone completely) and swing by CVS and get a pre-paid burner phone.
6. Switch to Cash
ATM and credit card leave trails. Make ONE cash withdrawal, as soon as possible after leaving, then stop using your cards. If you are going to check into a hotel for the night, use cash. Make purchases with the cash you took out. Don’t let your financial transactions give away your whereabouts. If you feel unsafe or uncomfortable carrying cash – or if you’re staying in a shelter and keeping cash on you is impractical – prepaid Visa gift cards are a decent option. They can be picked up at many grocery stores and even some larger convenience stores.
7. File a police report of threats or committed violence
If you have children or are legally entangled (married, co-own property, etc), you are likely going to have some interaction with the Court system in which you reside. Making an incident report is an important part of building a strong case for the Court to issue Protection Orders (sometimes called Restraining Orders) and for determining custody.
8. File For a Protective Order
Again, this can be called different things in different jurisdictions, but the common element is that these mechanisms exist to give the Court a way to establish clear “no go” zones for your abuser. There is no piece of paper that can ensure you or your children’s safety, but having a Court Order prompts an important chain of events that help protect you better than if you don’t have one. If your abuser violates the Order, that violation in and of itself is grounds for your abuser to be arrested. Without an Order, the police likely cannot take any action about nebulous threats or actions meant to intimidate you – like showing up at your job or driving around your mother’s house.
9. Stay Off of Social Media
Abusers can find their victims fairly easily through social media. The metadata in a photo can give your exact location. If you “check in” somewhere (perhaps not even intentionally) your hiding place can be discovered. We know it is tempting to check-in with family and friends via social media, but your safety has to come first.
As women, we are socialized to think that we are being dramatic when we ask to have our needs met. If you’ve been in a relationship where you’re gaslighted, you likely have been told that you blow things out of proportion. Do not buy this BS. Verbal threats can escalate into physical violence faster than you can say ‘domestic violence homicide review board’. Don’t become a statistic because you’re concerned about being dramatic. The paramount thing to keep in mind is that getting out should supersede any priority to grab any particular item, even vital documents. One of our former clients (who asked to remain anonymous) can wrap up the most vital point better than we can, so we’ll end with her words:
“The night I left my marriage, I left my house with two dogs, one kid, and no toothbrush. I had my ID, car keys, and a handful of clothes, plus my kid’s school uniform. That’s it. And although getting my vital documents was a pain in the ass that involved lawyers, it was fine. I was able to get input from the sheriff’s office on how to get back into the house to get my things safely, and get support from House of Ruth on my legal options. It didn’t matter that I left without the ‘essentials’. It just mattered that I left.”
About the Authors
Christy A. Zlatkus, Esquire and Dr. Elizabeth Degi DuBois, PhD, are a former attorney/client duo who managed to have fun together while navigating Elizabeth’s particularly icky divorce. The pair were casual friends for over a decade while Christy built her family law career and Elizabeth ran several NGOs. When Elizabeth filed for divorce, Christy helped her keep her emotional equilibrium through the process. Their say-anything friendship dynamic partnered with Christy’s no-nonsense advice had a profound impact on the outcome of Elizabeth’s case, and the two decided to join forces to reach more women with tangible, compassionate advice for surviving and thriving in the midst of divorce and custody matters. Christy founded Z Family Law, LLC, a boutique family law firm that seeks to empower its clients through their family law matter. Elizabeth was a natural fit to serve as Client Relations Director to help Z Family Law, LLC provide compassionate advocacy. In addition to their legal work together, Elizabeth and Christy co-founded the Eos Initiative, a legislative advocacy group committed to making family law proceedings safer for people fleeing domestic violence. You can follow their work on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.