Practical Tips for Helping Victims of Abuse

The #MeToo movement is a stone cut from the mountain of silent victims’ pain, rolling forth to break in pieces the corrupt and powerful institutions of this world.

Abuse is no respecter of victims.  Religious and secular, clergy and celebrities, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, women and men.  #MeToo stories infect every community — our friends and families, our churches and coworkers.  Hypocrisy is rampant.

Victims who speak out are prophets, calling the world to repentance.

The world is listening.  You are listening.  As #MeToo has erupted, I hear the same questions again and again from concerned observers with desires to help.

I believe victims, I know abuse happens, but I don’t know who they are. 

Someone close to me is in a terrible relationship.  I’m listening, but I don’t know what to do.

How can I help? 

I’ve spent months trying to answer that question.  My musings are now a sprawling 18-page Google doc.  It’s far too long for one blog post.  But as the media stories continue to mount, I feel compelled to at least offer a single post with the most concrete, practical tips for bystanders like you and me.

Stand up for Silent Victims

Women and men living in abusive relationships are often terrified to disclose it.  They may be doubting their own experiences, they may fear retaliation from their abuser, or they may fear they won’t be believed.  

They may also fear that they will be believed.  They’re afraid of the consequences of exposing the dark truth.  Any shred of normalcy will be lost as outsiders start trying to pry into and dictate the victim’s choices.  They may lose friends and financial stability.  The victim knows if their story comes out too soon — if they decide afterwards to “stay” longer than socially acceptable — they’re going to lose credibility and sympathy and security.

So they sit in silence, but are actively listening. They’re mentally sorting their network into supportive and unsupportive categories based on how their acquaintances respond to media stories or conversations about relationships and abuse. They’re tracking who may have had similar experiences, who may offer helpful resources or advice, and who they can trust.

Thus, the first step you can take to practically support abuse victims is to start supporting them before you know they exist.  If you make it an occasional practice to do the following, I sadly guarantee you that victims will start quietly crawling out of the woodwork to confide in you.

  • Post helpful articles or statements of general support on social media. If you need a script, I suggest:  “I don’t know who you are, but I know you exist. Statistics indicate that abuse is far more prevalent in my friend’s lives than I can possibly be aware of or understand.  I ache for your suffering. I want to help. I will believe you. You deserve to feel safe and loved. If you need a shoulder to cry on, a guest bed to crash in, or a truck to help you move out, I’m one text away.”            

 

  • Speak up in social situations where insensitive jokes about abuse are made. Jokes about hitting or murdering or cheating or controlling romantic partners are never acceptable.  “He’s so whipped” or “she’s such a pushover” can reinforce victims’ perceived lack of power. Even compliments like “she’s so strong she would never tolerate abuse” have a dark underside.  They signal to victims that they are weak and their abuse is their fault. Combat these implications actively — a simple “that’s not funny” or “that’s not fair to the realities of abuse” is all it takes.

 

  • Remind others that relationship advice which applies to healthy relationships is toxic in abusive ones.  We all hear blanket statements of advice all the time.  “The best way to avoid an abusive relationship is to choose well and listen to the spirit beforehand.” “A family that prays together stays together.”  “Those who are sealed in the Temple are guaranteed the blessings of eternal happiness.” “Never go to bed angry.” “Instead of looking for fault in your spouse, you should always apologize for and seek forgiveness for your own faults first.”

    All of these can be spun against victims by their abusers. They surface in gospel lessons and in social conversations.  Any relationship advice focused on black-and-white rules, or on repentance and forgiveness and submission, reinforces the victim’s sense that everything is their fault for not being “righteous” enough and they “deserve” to suffer.  Their abuser is probably using exactly these sorts of statements to gaslight them.  A gentle “remember, this doesn’t apply in cases of abuse” goes a long way for the silent listeners.

Help Victims Plan and Execute Their Escapes

At some point, a friend or family member is going to be in a terrible relationship, want to get out, and not know how.  REMEMBER: the ultimate choice to leave is always theirs; you cannot and should not coerce it.  But you can provide emotional support and help plan logistics.

Victims are often so overwhelmed by trying to survive that they have no energy left to plan logistics.  All of their day-to-day energy is spent trying to de-escalate the relationship, calm their abuser down, and stop the pain. Victims know they’ll be happier once they leave, but they literally cannot envision how the first day, week, and month after leaving will go.  Leaving is the single greatest escalation imaginable.  They’re (rightfully) terrified that those first couple weeks is when their abuser is most likely to become violent, stalking, or retaliatory.

In addition to listening and believing, you can dramatically help ease the mental load by undertaking specific tasks.  You can extend a multitude of practical offers of assistance and help make and execute on a plan.  The below is a brainstormed list.  Please note that not all ideas are applicable to all types of abuse, which range dramatically in severity.  But it can serve as a starting point as you work with your friend to discuss what would be most helpful.

Legal Documentation

  • Create and store a file at your house of original or high-quality copies of core identification and financial documents.  Birth certificates, social security cards, passports, immigration papers, driver’s licenses, marriage certificates, bank account numbers, deeds, recent paychecks or bills, etc.  All of these documents will be critical to filing for divorce, changing names, switching jobs, finding housing, and other activities requiring legal paperwork.

Sentimentalities

  • Sneak valuable mementos or memories out of the victim’s home.  We’re talking “attic” type materials — the sort of thing the abuser never looks at, and won’t notice is gone, but has strong sentimental value. For example, boxes of journals, old photos, scrapbooks, awards, holiday cards, concert tickets, childhood drawings, a backup harddrive of photos, etc. Sometimes when victims leave suddenly the abusers retaliate by throwing away or burning everything that belonged to the victim.

Evidence

  • Many victims just want the abuse to be over, not to escalate it by reporting it to police.  Or they may feel that as bad as emotional or financial abuse is, it doesn’t rise to the level of “criminal.”  If applicable, offer to help collect “evidence” of abuse — create a contemporaneous file at your house or in your email account of photos, texts, anecdotes, etc. the victim tells you.

Shelter

  • Supply the victim with a guest key or code to your house.  Give them carte blanche permission to walk into your house, any time of day or night, on no notice, and crash on a guest bed or sofa.
  • Extend an open offer for the victim (and their kids) to stay at your house for at least two weeks or a month following any departure.
  • Prepare a 3-day bag of little-used clothes and supplies for the victim and their kids. (The point is so that the abuser won’t notice they’re gone.)  Store those bags at your house. If the victim leaves on no notice, at least they’ll have familiar clothes.
  • Offer to assemble a moving crew, or coordinate a small army of moral and physical support to go back to a house and collect additional victims’ belongings.  Make sure the victim won’t need to face their abuser alone, or at all.                              
  • Prepare a list of companies in the area that provide free or temporary services for victims of abuse (like rental cars, hotel rooms, moving crews, cleaning crews, dry cleaning, childcare, dental or medical care).  I’ve seen these advertised in communities and partnered with various domestic abuse shelters.   
  • Scour craigslist or other listings for permanent and affordable housing solutions, visit some yourself, prepare a curated list of the best recommendations.

Safety

  • Purchase the victim a cheap “burner phone” that their abuser can’t track.
  • Set up a Google voice number or extra gmail account the abuser doesn’t know about.
  • Establish a “code phrase” the victim can use in texts, in phone calls, in social media postings, or in person to subtly signal something is seriously wrong.         
  • Establish a (legitimate) book club or other regularly-occurring activity that helps you provide friendship and emotional support — and which the abuser won’t suspect can also be converted into an escape network quickly.
  • Ask if there are any guns or weapons in the victim’s house and come up with a plan to neutralize them (i.e. move or hide them, buy a gun safe, change the lock on the safe, hide all of the ammo, immediately move for a restraining order).        
  • Provide a list of local abuse hotlines, abuse shelters, police hotlines, and child protective services numbers.

Transportation

  • Install Uber or Lyft on the victim’s phone and tie it to your credit card, so that they feel financially secure to leave untracked on a minute’s notice.       
  • Offer to lend or coordinate renting the victim a car (if they don’t have their own) for a couple weeks after they leave.                               
  • Provide public transportation passes to the victim or their family, tied to your credit card.
  • Scour used car listings for permanent transportation, examine some yourself, and prepare a curated list of recommendations.

Finances

  • Help the victim assemble a comprehensive list of all financial information for the couple.  Sometimes when there’s financial abuse the victim literally has no comprehension of either assets or debts, or their basic rights to support under state law.  Leaving without knowing this information opens up opportunities for the abuser to lie, cheat, falsify, hide, or steal assets.                                                     
  • Help set up a secret/independent checking account or credit card for the victim that can’t be monitored by the abuser.  Stash away some funds for it, or offer to loan some minimum “bridge funds.”  If a victim knows that they have even $1000 in the bank for necessities after they leave, it can make a world of difference.  (Note: check with a lawyer or financial planner about overfunding the account; in some states any money put into that account prior to separation may presumptively belong 50% to the abuser).       
  • Prepare a list of recommended tax or financial advisors.
  • Check in on insurance status and implications for victim if they separate or get divorced; offer to help with insurance transitions.
  • If the victim is employed, tell them to request a form from HR or otherwise change the direct deposit from a victim’s paycheck into their own, independent account.      
  • If the victim relies entirely on their spouse for financial support, prepare a stack of welfare (SNAP, CHIP, MEDICAID, etc.) paperwork to file quickly.

Childcare

  • Offer to coordinate volunteer child care and playdates for the kids.
  • Research reasonably priced community childcare services.
  • Help prepare a plan to provide as much child stability as possible — for example, keeping the kids in the same school district with their same friends.
  • Create list of teachers, school psychologists, coaches, or other child mentors to inform them quickly of huge life changes for the children.
  • Offer to run kids to activities, doctors appointments, summer camps, etc. in order to reduce the transportation load on your friend.
  • Prepare a list of possible summer enrichment activities to choose from, if becoming a single working parent is going to wreak particular havoc during the off-from-school times.

Pet Care

  • Offer to take care of family pets while new housing logistics are worked out.

Divorce & Legal Consequences

  • Prepare a list of recommended lawyers and legal services.
  • Have a divorce lawyer on call with a stack of divorce and paperwork ready to go.
  • Have a plan to get restraining orders, formal recognition of economic separation, child support, custody etc. as quickly as possible.
  • Have an immigration lawyer on call. If one or more parties to the couple is a non-citizen there can be legal complications from divorce.

Communications Planning

  • Prepare a list of “need to know” people in the event of a victim leaving.  Offer to help with emails and communications and logistics coordinating individual responses, including assigning others some of the tasks on this list.
  • Coordinate all of the compassionate service efforts from the ward or from the victim’s extended social network (to the extent they are informed).
  • Offer to pick up supporting friends or family from the airport, or arrange other guest rooms in other friends’ houses for them to stay at.
  • Offer to research and coordinate the purchase of flights, if the victim needs to run away to family in another state for a few weeks.                                      
  • Discuss ways to work behind the scenes to make sure the victim and abuser will not be attending the same church, workplace, or social events.                                                               

Employment

  • Prepare list of local job hunting and skills training services.
  • Offer to ghost write a notice to the victims’ employer about the situation (the victim should send).  Include a picture of the abuser so the employer knows to bar them from entering the building.
  • Offer to job hunt.  Prepare lists of potential opportunities, network in the community for resources,  scour online listings.
  • Help edit resumes and cover letters, practice interviewing skills.

Physical & Emotional Health

  • Prepare a list of friends in your network who have overcome abuse in the past and are willing to empathetically guide others in the future.          
  • Prepare a list of recommended personal therapists.                
  • Prepare a list of recommended child trauma therapists.        
  • Prepare a list of OBGYN’s / psychiatrists / doctors who are known to have an excellent, safe, and compassionate bedside manners.            
  • Annotate the recommended doctors and therapists with their standard rates and whether they accept the victim’s insurance.             
  • Assign a safe mutual friend of the abuser to check in on the abuser in the month following divorce.  The victim may be concerned that the abuser will commit suicide or something else drastic — but it is no longer the victim’s responsibility to protect their abuser.  It will offer the victim peace of mind to know that someone else is checking in.

Decorations 

  • Once a victim is safe and established in a new living situation, help convert it into a cozy and welcoming home.
  • Scour craigslist for free or discounted furniture.
  • Give the friend autonomy to pick their own “fresh” or “rebellious” or “not tinged with bad memories” decorating style — and then invest the time and curation energy to help execute on it.    Engage in little frivolities that help remind the victim they are safe and can be happy and loved.
  • Repaint walls, repair furnishings, or hang pictures and curtains.
  • Shop at IKEA, Target, or other stores for basics.  (Or grab extras from your house.) The victim won’t have anything — cleaning supplies, soap, toothpaste, dish towels, a bathmat, a basic dish set or cutlery, toilet paper, a broom, hangers, a vacuum — you can do a massive “staples” run and stock his/her new living accommodations.

Groceries & Chores

  • Set up a recurring Amazon delivery of staples (milk, cereal, bread, diapers, etc.)
  • Set up Instacart, Doordash, Blue Apron, or other food service on your friends’ phone and tie it your credit card for a few weeks.
  • Wash, clean, and fold the family’s laundry.
  • Give the gift of a maid for a few months.                                                                                                                                          

The thrust of all of the above tasks is they all take significant emotional energy and curation and time resources.  Moving and car shopping and job hunting and legal filings and insurance wrangling and schedule coordinating and groceries and chores are hard enough to handle for well-functioning adults — they’re close to emotionally impossible for a victim of abuse, and they all have to be done simultaneously upon leaving.  There’s an enormous amount of logistical help you can offer to smooth the process and help the victim feel loved, as they seek safety and healing.

Comments

  1. Anon_Also says:

    Awesome post! Thanks

  2. Wow, thank you. I’ve just been called as a RS president, and have been wondering how and when to raise the issue of abuse in our Sunday meetings, as well as what to do when cases come to my attention. I’ll be printing your post to add to my fat new binder.

  3. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    My wife is the Compassionate Service Leader in our RS, so I think this would be useful for her as well. (And would have been useful in her previous marriage to an emotionally and occasionally physically abusive man.)

  4. Paul Ritchey says:

    Excellent, Carolyn.

    As a lawyer, I hasten to underscore the need to get at least basic legal advice before leaving a residence. Leaving has consequences (custody chief among them), and those helping victims of abuse should be sure the victim has considered those consequences as part of her plan of escape. A good friend lends a steady hand in frightening times, and keeps an eye on the future while the victim is forced to deal with the present.

  5. Carolyn says:

    Paul: I don’t know anything about the consequences for custody, so a basic overview or link would be immensely helpful.

  6. Paul Ritchey says:

    Carolyn (and all):

    I preface this by saying that if a victim must choose between protecting her or her children’s lives with preparing for future legal proceedings, she should always favor the former.

    The way the law treats leaving the marital home varies by jurisdiction and the factual circumstances of the matter. Without giving legal advice (which, again, would depend heavily on context), generally there are two potential problems with leaving a home to flee abuse: (i) if the victim leaves without her children, visitation may become practically more difficult, and if the abuse later becomes difficult or impossible to prove, having left the children with the other spouse can make regaining custody more difficult; and (ii) if the victim takes the children with her and the abuse later becomes difficult or impossible to prove, she risks being accused of having wrongfully interfered with the spouse’s custody. See this page for a brief explanation: https://family-law.freeadvice.com/family-law/child_custody/moving-out-of-the-house-and-child-custody.htm

    You see where this is going: in the moment, when a victim knows what’s happened, and is concerned with protecting her life or psyche, it’s easy to imaging that truth will cut its own way once the custody dispute begins. Happily, that’s often true, and abuse can weight heavily in favor of the victim in a later custody dispute. But it doesn’t always go that way, so it is always wise to consult an attorney well before a permanent move if at all possible.

    If that isn’t possible, the obvious solution is to have law enforcement remove the abuser. Failing that, try to speak with a lawyer even as you leave: many family law practices can speak with you in as little turn-around time as an hour or two.

    For *very* deep reading on the interaction between violence and custody, see this non-profit legal resource kit: https://www.legalmomentum.org/sites/default/files/kits/dv11resources-1.pdf

  7. Thank you Carolyn. Pets is a huge one. Like what you said about destroying sentimental belongings, many abusers use threats to harm pets as a way of controlling the victim or preventing them from leaving, use pets as a hostage for negotiation, or actually harm or kill pets as retaliation for leaving. This happened to someone in my family–the abuser killed the family dog, devastating the woman and the children.

    Many animal shelters will foster animals in abuse situations but you have to know to ask and push on the issue. Usually the shelter will tell you that they 100% won’t take pets temporarily–if you hand them over you are permanently surrendering them, so if you don’t now that many make exceptions for abuse scenarios you wouldn’t know to ask about that. So this could be another logistics thing that an ally could help arrange.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Thank you. So much to learn here.

  9. jaxjensen says:

    Two-Thumbs Up

  10. I’d also just really reiterate what you said about victim choice and emphasize that this might be a long game. Much, much longer than some “let’s fix it now” allies might be prepared for. The good can-do attitude we get at church and have toward our callings could make us impatient here, and that’s not supportive for victims. Allies: expect you might have that spare change of clothes or those sentimental items or that photo evidence stored at your house for a year or more.

  11. Carolyn says:

    @bcccynthia: Yeah. Super long. It’s one reason the “set up a book club” or “lunch date” thing is so important. You are legitimately being their friend and checking in and refusing to let them be isolated for the long haul — so that whether it’s in three months or three years, you can help them out.

  12. LatamGirl says:

    This is excellent. Thank you.

    @sba- I’m RS president in my ward and I keep feeling like I need to raise this issue in our meetings. So I do.

  13. Thanks, Carolyn. Really great tool for us all.

  14. zontziry says:

    This is excellent for adults who find themselves in abusive situations. I would love to see a similar article on how to help children who are victims of abuse. As a child who was abused, I think there were signs people saw (something was “off” about the family) but didn’t know how to help or what to do. Children whose parents are abused also need post-trauma care and help: even having a model of how healthy relationships work is so needed for them (my parents abused each other, and I knew their relationship was unhealthy, but I didn’t know what healthy looked like — and yes, my family had a great many issues). But the fact this is getting discussed more at all is fantastic.

  15. The $64,000 Answer says:

    One thing that faith communities might do for victims — but don’t — is pray for them *in public,* and do so regularly and as a matter of course. The Catholic Church of which I’m a member doesn’t (occasionally, the Pope participates in a foot-washing exercise at St Peter’s, which in my view does more harm than good), and I’ve never heard of the LDS Church, or any other Christian church, doing so on a regular basis. This reveals two things about us as Christians: (i) victims of sexual and domestic violence are too icky in our view to be acknowledged publicly; and (ii) we don’t actually believe what we say about the efficacy of prayer. I can assure you that the victims notice both of these. So do non-Christians, who are rightly swift to observe divergences between our precepts and our practice.

  16. 64k – I read your idea, and honestly it horrifies me. It’s very “scarlet letter”-ish. Helping victims of abuse is much, much more effective on a personal level. If, when I was in an abusive marriage, I’d heard that someone publicly prayed for me to get out of it, I’d have withdrawn even further from the community, not become closer to it. Bad enough to be discussed in a Bishops council, but to be outed to an entire congregation? That’s worse, not better.

    I have it now, the problem comes when doing something without the consent of the abused. It’s important for all of the tips given for them to be done in coordination with and for the comfort of the abused. Forcing an abused person out can itself be abusive.

    If you want to pray for abuse victims generally, great! But please do not lay bare someone’s situation to any portion of the world without their specific (not implied) consent. You will only make things worse.

  17. Carolyn says:

    Frank — I didn’t even consider 64K as praying aloud for abuse victims by name — that would be a breach of so many boundaries!!!

    But I would approve of generalized prayers as a priority. In Catholic mass there’s a section every Sunday of call and response like: “for those without food and shelter, that we as Catholics may find and succor them in their need, Lord hear our prayers.”

    I would be all in favor of adding “for those children and individuals who feel helpless against the physical, sexual, and emotional violence inflicted upon them by those who should love them, that we may advocate for and protect them, lord hear our prayer”

  18. The $64,000 Answer says:

    Mr Pellett:-

    This being an unusually busy day at this end, you’ll no doubt forgive me for not troubling to respond to the extraordinary straw-man argument you have projected upon me.

  19. 64k – I apologize. It was unclear if you meant praying for someone personally or for abuse victims in general, especially with your addition of the foot washing aside. I did not mean to create a straw man, but was my initial, visceral reaction to what it appeared you said, lensed through my own experience being in an abusive relationship.

    I’ve been glad for the times the Church has made mention in General Conference, but to you it does not seem to be often enough. How often would be enough?

    Don’t feel pressed to respond – I certainly understand business and how it relates to internet use. I hope your unusually busy day goes well.

  20. The $64,000 Answer says:

    Mr Pellett:-

    Many thanks, and apologies for my own excessively splenetic response. (As I say, being run off my feet just at the moment.)

    As for how often is enough? While I can’t speak for the LDS Church—although from what I read on this site from nearly all women, and not a few men, who comment on the subject, there are at least two views about that—I don’t think that for the Christian churches in general, we’re in the least danger of approaching overkill. In my own experience of lifelong churchgoing across four continents and more than thirty countries (I’ve one of those jobs that moves me around a lot), I’ve heard more prayers petitioning the Almighty’s blessing upon veterinary surgeons, air traffic controllers and journalists than I have victims of sexual or domestic violence. Not that vets, ATCOs and the media don’t need prayers too. But I rather fancy that there are rather more of the former than of the latter, and that their need for spiritual as well as temporal sustenance and solidarity might be, in the aggregate, still greater.

    We pray for the poor. For immigrants. For ethnic and racial minorities. For refugees. For the sick. For political leaders. For police and firefighters and nurses and care assistants. And a million and one other categories. All good and excellent things. But in my experience, and that of every other Christian, regardless of denomination, to whom I’ve spoken about the matter, we don’t pray for victims of abuse. In the Catholic world, it is quite literally newsworthy on those vanishingly rare occasions when we do.

    That, to me, conveys a powerful message. It tells us as members of faith communities and it tells the world– above all it tells the victims themselves — where our priorities lie, and where they don’t.

  21. The $64,000 Answer – (sorry about the shortening, I’d hoped to use something less formal but it came across as trite. Also, nice use of “splenetic”. It doesn’t feel like a word I’d use, but it’s nice to be hit by these lesser known words; keeps us on our toes.)

    I very much concur. Victims of abuse needs to be something we think about and pray for more often, in public groups of every shape and size.

  22. Carolyn says:

    In terms of “overkill,” I think one useful exercise is to match our prayers to our needs.
    I’d bet if you talked to most bishops in the world, about the biggest struggles in their flocks, they would all fairly universally say:

    poverty
    sickness
    ordinary disasters of life (floods, fires, layoffs, car accidents, etc.)
    abuse
    pornography
    faith crises.

    Mormons are good at sickness and disasters — at least the temporary kind. Blessings and meals and rides and all that.

    Mormons are OK at poverty. Employment specialists and welfare and cheap high-quality education offerings.

    Mormons may not be “good” at porn and faith crises — but we spend an ENORMOUS amount of time talking/praying about them at general conference and in our congregations. We’re talking multiple times per year.

    So I think that’s where 64K is seeing the enormous dearth in abuse. We average, what, 1 talk every 5 years in general conference that addresses it directly? And then maybe 1 talk per year that throws in a quick aside about it without elaborating? But it’s not covered in any gospel doctrine or relief society or priesthood or youth manuals, and it’s never a topic in sacrament meeting, and we don’t pray about it in general or global terms, like we do stock phrases about “bless the sick” and “bless the missionaries.”

  23. jaxjensen says:

    In terms of helping people avoid abuse… the story out of Texas has added that the mother of one of the slain thinks her daughter’s repeated rejection of the shooter’s advances might have been a motive.

    I’m dreading that someone is going to (maybe even jokingly) tell some girl, “You shouldn’t have told him no. What if he shoots up the (school/workplace/etc).” And some girl is going to feel pressure to date some guy who makes her uncomfortable or who she is afraid might hurt her. I doubt it will ever be a parent, but I can see friends or acquaintances saying something stupid like this. There is no reason any girl/woman should feel pressure to accommodate the desires of boys/men.

    I know there was a time that girls were told that they should say yes to any boy that asks them out, “so not to hurt their feelings.” I hope this has vanished and that all girls are told to date only whom they choose, and with whom they feel safe and comfortable.

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