Safety planning is a process that involves ongoing assessments of risks, resources, and priorities and the creation of strategies to maximize safety and to pursue goals in this context. Although they may not use the term safety planning, people who experience threats to their safety, including those who are being or have been abused, engage in this process on an ongoing basis as they try to establish and sustain lives of wellbeing for themselves and their families. Generally, if threats persist, their plans evolve over time to include responding to immediate crisis situations as well as exploring resources aimed at reducing or preventing future risks. Because most safety planning has been developed in the context of domestic violence services and the majority of survivors who seek help from these services are women who have male abusive partners, the female pronoun is used in this essay; however, the gender of both the survivor and the abusive-violent partner is of course a consideration that will affect safety plans.
Safety planning has been used most commonly to describe a process used with survivors of domestic and sexual violence. In the early days of specialized crisis services (the 1970s and 1980s) in the United States, domestic violence advocates, in particular, encouraged survivors to develop safety plans to escape future violent situations. Such plans usually included arranging for safe and accessible places outside of the residence to store the identification papers, keys, money, contact information, and minimal essential clothing that would be needed to flee from an abusive episode. Plans also sometimes included coded signals to friends or family so that they could call for help or provide an emergency place to stay.
As domestic violence policies changed and the range of services expanded during the 1990s (and later), survivors with more complex needs began to contact programs. They were also increasingly likely to connect with specialized advocates outside the program context: in court, at a hospital or welfare office, and through child protection agencies and others. Advocates also became increasingly aware that many survivors of domestic violence did not want to leave their abusive partners, at least not in the short term, but wanted to remain in the relationship and have the violence end. These changes in services and survivors’ needs and/or desires called for an expanded approach to safety planning.
Contemporary safety planning involves an advocate working with a survivor of domestic and/or sexual violence to address needs for safety in a comprehensive way, including physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, and economic dimensions. It begins with a conversation to learn more about how the survivor understands her situation: what she wants to do about the relationship, how and when the violence abuse occurs, what she has tried to do about it and how her strategies have worked, what resources she has (friends, family, financial, housing, transportation, and others), and what she most hopes and fears. Answers to these questions determine the starting point for safety planning. Everyone’s safety plan will differ and will change with new circumstances. The survivor’s age, primary relationships, gender, sexual orientation, race-ethnicity, economic situation, and access to an array of resources will all affect what the most effective safety plan will look like.
Ideally, safety plans address the combination of safety considerations at multiple levels and take into account both short-term and longer-term goals. First and foremost, a plan will focus on individual safety and actions. What can the survivor do to improve her safety? Change locks on doors and windows? Carry a cell phone with her at all times for emergency calls, including having one next to her bed at night? Hide and/or identify potential weapons? Make arrangements with family or friends? Review with children what to do if or when violence occurs? There are many potential individual steps, and each should be reviewed for its implications. Does involving family or friends put them at risk? Could any of them provide information to her abusive partner that would undermine the effectiveness of her plan?
Of course, all individual safety plans are contingent on the abusive partner’s behavior and patterns. A survivor does not ultimately have control over her safety. Creating an effective safety plan, then, is also necessarily based on detailed knowledge of what the violent person has done and might do. What are warning signs of impending violence? Are there days or times or situations when violence occurs most commonly? How does he present himself and his actions to others who might be involved, such as family, friends, coworkers, or institutional staff? What economic, legal, social, medical, and/or child protection leverage does he have, and how might he use it? Can he withhold vital resources (such as access to health care or money to pay for housing) from the survivor?
Safety plans may include seeking support from major institutions, such as the criminal or civil courts, welfare offices, job training programs, specialized housing programs, and others. These institutions can provide legal or medical protections or avenues toward leaving the relationship and attaining self-sufficiency. Each option should be reviewed carefully before becoming part of a safety plan. Advocates should have access to as much detailed knowledge about each agency as possible. Are there particular individuals who are known to understand violence and survivors’ concerns who could work with this particular woman? What are the agency’s policies and practices about eligibility and waiting time, the length of time it takes to obtain the desired resource (an apartment, a welfare check, a restraining order, etc.)? How is information stored, and how and/or when is it shared and with whom? Strict confidentiality policies are often crucial to effective safety planning. Is information easily obtained by a spouse or guardian? Is it shared with other agencies? What are the agency’s relationships with particular communities? For example, some areas have specialized services for specific ethnic or cultural groups. Those agencies may provide the most culturally relevant services, but confidentiality could be an issue. These are all important considerations in safety planning that includes community agencies. Each may provide a particular kind of help, but pose potential risks as well.
To summarize, safety planning is a process that begins with the survivor of violence—her experience, her knowledge of risks, her concerns for children or other family members, and her goals. It evaluates potential resources for her potential risks and benefits and the ways each one could interact with others. Since safety plans are crafted collaboratively and based on individual circumstances, they will change as situations change. Safety planning is a crucial part of trying to reduce or prevent violence.
- Davies, J., Lyon, E., & Monti-Catania, D. (1998). Safety planning with battered women: Complex lives/difficult choices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Goodkind, J., Sullivan, C. M., & Bybee, D. I. (2004). A contextual analysis of battered women’s safety planning. Violence Against Women, 10(5), 514–533.
- Sullivan, C. M. (2000). A model for effectively advocating for women with abusive partners. In J. P. Vincent & N. Jouriles (Eds.), Domestic violence: Guidelines for research-informed practice (pp. 126–143). London: Jessica Kingsley.
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