By Shelley Flannery
Maybe you left in the heat of an argument or while they were sleeping. Maybe you decided to pick up the kids and just keep driving. Or maybe the ER nurse who helped patch you up made you realize what’s at stake if you returned home.
Whatever the case, you decided to leave in a hurry, and never had the chance to prepare to leave an abuser. And now you have next to nothing: No extra clothes, no important documents, no money. What should you do? Where should you go? How do you start over … from scratch?
Before you think about anything else, get somewhere safe. Avoid going to a neighbor’s house or a close friend or relative’s home because the abuser will look there. Go somewhere the abuser wouldn’t expect or, better yet, somewhere unknown to them. And if you have any sort of mobile device with you that has GPS, turn it off so you can’t be tracked.
Some companies maintain an apartment for employees who are going through hardship or corporate housing for traveling executives, so try reaching out to your employer to see if they have somewhere you can stay. Religious organizations may be of assistance, too. Or ask a loved one to connect you with someone they know and trust.
Then again, even if you have connections in the area, you might be better calling a shelter and asking if they can accommodate you. Plus, the advocates there will be able to help you with much more than housing.
“This is really the best place for a person to go initially,” says Jeffery T. Van Fleet, a family law attorney in Wyoming.“These centers offer a variety of services, including community response teams, trained staff, attorneys, contacts with local school districts, local community and faith-based organizations, law enforcement, and military contacts when near a base.”
Of course, even if you decide to stay somewhere else, you can still contact a shelter for guidance. The majority of them offer outreach support.
Going Back to Your Residence
You may be tempted to return to your residence to pick up a few things. Do not go alone. Even taking a friend or family member with you is ill advised. You don’t want to put yourself or anyone else in danger, and it is well documented that danger and lethality risk increase when leaving.
Instead, contact your local law enforcement agency. They may provide standby assistance, a service in which an officer accompanies you to your residence to keep you safe while you get a few personal items packed up. Note that a few things means just that. This is not the time to try and haul your beloved dining room table or the entirety of your attic out of there. The officer(s) have limited time and are not permitted to help you carry items, so think small. Beeline it for:
- Any and all identification, including your driver’s license, birth certificate, passport, Social Security card, employee ID, insurance card, etc.
- Important paperwork, including a copy of your marriage certificate, car title, immunization records for the kids, deed to the property or rental agreement, pet ownership documents or vet records, irreplaceable photos, etc.
- Evidence you’ve collected of the abuse, whether photos or a journal you jotted notes in.
- Prescription medication for you or your children.
- Your cell phone.
- Spare keys to your car.
- A few comfort items for yourself or your children, such as a favorite blanket or toy.
Keep in mind that if there is any dispute over what’s yours, you’ll need to leave it behind. You’ll need to take that up in court.
What If You Can’t Return?
If going back to your residence, even with police presence, is unthinkable or if the abuser has destroyed your property, try not to panic. Your safety and the safety of your children is what’s most important. At the end of the day, everything else is only stuff. Still, you will need some items sooner than later. Van Fleet suggests starting with a cell phone.
“Once at the shelter, you should seek to obtain a cell phone, either through a community-supported program or by purchasing an inexpensive pay-as-you-go phone,” he says. “This will be critical,” so that you have a reliable way to get in touch with those attempting to help you—and them with you.
Next, you’ll need ID. Start with your state’s motor vehicle department, as it should be relatively easy to obtain a duplicate license. Plus, then you’ll have picture ID available for all of the other tasks you’ll need to do, such as withdrawing money from a bank account.
Speaking of money, make a withdrawal as quickly as possible, before the abuser hides funds or cuts off access. Also, using cash will be preferable so your location can’t be tracked via credit or bank card activity. If there are no funds to withdraw or you don’t have access because your name isn’t on any accounts, see if it’s possible to borrow money from a loved one or talk to shelter staff about potential financial aid for survivors. Having some seed money in your pocket will make replacing other necessities much easier.
If you haven’t yet, sit down with an advocate and create a safety plan for yourself and your children. And check out “Will My Partner Be Violent After I Leave?”
It’s Not Fair
Of course, nothing is fair about a survivor having to abandon a shared residence because of domestic violence, leaving the abuser comfortable at home. But remember, the goal is long-term safety. You may not have much now, so think of life a year down the road and what you want that to look like. Read, “Why Survivors Should Set Goals for the Future” for some tips on moving forward toward a safer, healthier life.