Beyond Rope Ladders & Padlocks:
A New Approach to Safety Planning
Sherry Hamby & Sarah Clark
Sewanee, the University of the South
Presented at the Ending Domestic & Sexual Violence: Innovations in Practice
& Research Conference, Portsmouth, NH, November, 2011
Common Instruments & Tools
This review focuses on published instruments
You will see their content is rather narrow.
Although many advocates do address these
risks, they do so largely without guidance from
published documents or the nation’s premier
resources on domestic violence.
Existing Dangerousness Assessments:
Ask Only About Physical Harm
The most frequent topics covered by popular
dangerousness/lethality assessment tools are
(Laing, 2004; Websdale, 2000) :
batterer’s drug & alcohol problems;
batterer’s obsessiveness & jealousy;
batterer’s threats to kill the victim or her children;
batterer access to & familiarity with weapons;
batterer’s violence outside the home;
batterer’s suicidal ideation & behavior;
partners are separated, or victim is fleeing.
A Typical Safety Plan—
Nat’l Coalition Against Domestic Violence
If you are still in the relationship:
Think of a safe place to go if an argument occurs - avoid
rooms with no exits (bathroom), or rooms with weapons
Think about and make a list of safe people to contact.
Keep change with you at all times.
Memorize all important numbers.
Establish a "code word" or "sign" so that family, friends,
teachers or co-workers know when to call for help.
Think about what you will say to your partner if heshe
Remember, you have the right to live without fear and
…Focuses on leaving & physical safety
If you have left the relationship:
Change your phone number.
Save and document all contacts, messages, injuries or
other incidents involving the batterer.
Change locks, if the batterer has a key.
Avoid staying alone.
Plan how to get away if confronted by an abusive
If you have to meet your partner, do it in a public
Vary your routine.
Notify school and work contacts.
Call a shelter for battered women.
If you leave the relationship or are thinking of
leaving, you should take important papers and
documents with you to enable you to apply for
benefits or take legal action.
The State of Safety Planning
Bottom line: Many safety plans
devote more space to rope ladders and
padlocks than to providing guidance
on dealing with the financial, legal,
and social risks faced by virtually all
In addition to leaving advocates to
figure out how to do this on their own,
one at a time, over and over again,
what other consequences does this
narrow focus have?
Physical Risks Posed to Others
Concern for others can constrain coping:
Friends—especially those who offer shelter
Others, such as coworkers, advocates, etc.
Ex: Across 6 studies, 48% of women in
shelters reported their pets had been
harmed, 45% said they had been
threatened, and 26% said the welfare of
their pets delayed their decision to leave
(Hamby, in preparation).
Financial dependence is often the most
commonly mentioned reason for staying
(e.g., Cruz, 2003).
Many areas of potential loss:
Lower standard of living
Loss of savings
Cannot afford neighborhoods with low crime or good schools
Would have to drop out of own schooling
Loss of health insurance
Loss of car/transportation
Doesn’t have security deposit, rent, furniture for even a terrible
apartment in a terrible neighborhood.
Dual arrests are on the rise
(Hirschel & Buzawa, 2002)
Arrest of batterer unlikely to lead
to jail time—will be back home
& madder than ever
If disclose abuse to
authorities, may be reported to
CPS for “exposing” children to
Risks losing custody of children
Risks unfair divorce settlement
Stigma—Almost all of the social
statuses associated with leaving a
violent relationship are stigmatized:
Loss of friendships, extended
family, support of
Children’s loss of
friends, schools, sports
May stigmatize entire family in
Not all victims need shelters
Not all victims are economically
disadvantaged or lacking housing
Celebrities obviously do not
represent the norm, but they will
have to stand in for all the
unknown lawyers, accountants,
physicians, psychologists, social
workers, nurses, teachers,
computer technicians, journalists,
artists, physical therapists,
veterinarians, and all of the other
women who don’t fit the stereotype
of “battered woman.”
The VIGOR: Multiple
Criteria Decision Making
Types of Problems Addressed with
Selecting routes for nuclear waste transport
(Chen, Wang, & Lin, 2008).
Promoting recycling (Gomes et al., 2008)
Understanding stock trading (Albadvi et al., 2007)
Deciding best locations for emergency vehicles (Araz et
Understanding “medical tourism”—when people will
decide to have surgery abroad (Bies & Zacharia, 2007)
…and dozens of other applications in environmental
sciences, engineering, agriculture, and finance
What Do These Problems Have
in Common with Battering?
Multiple facets to the problem
“Success” can be evaluated on multiple criteria
Not all criteria easily evaluated with dollars or
some other uniform metric—involve value
judgements (originally developed as an
alternative to cost-benefit analysis).
Multiple options to choose from, and these
options vary in how well they meet different
Using MCDM Principles to Create the
VIGOR: Victim Inventory of Goals,
Options, & Risks
6 other experienced advocates reviewed the
VIGOR and provided extensive feedback, paid
Pilot study with over 100 individuals who have
been victims of battering
Students in an undergraduate research seminar
helped further streamline and simplify the
Pilot Study: Risks, Strengths, Options
as Perceived by Victims of Battering
102 people (98% female) with histories of intimate partner
victimization were recruited from 2 domestic violence programs (1
shelter, 1 support group) in 2 Southern states.
Wide age range: 28% 18-25, 25% 26-30, 27% 31-40, 20% 41+
Ethnically and racially diverse: African-American
(54%), White/Caucasian (26%), Hispanic (11%), Native American
(9%), and other (1%).
58% reported income < $12,000 per year.
Most had children (91%), mean 2.14 children per participant.
They provided their perceptions of their risks and resources in a semistructured format. Responses were coded using a boot-strapping
method and analyzed. Participants were given a $25 gift card to thank
them for their participation. DV agencies were paid $25 per interview
to compensate them for staff time.
Step 1: Identify Risks
Fear of Fear partner Financially Concern for Lack Social
physical will murder insecure children*
harm to self
*Concern for children includes concern for their physical, emotional, and social well-being
Step 2: Identify Strengths
Have a job
*Personal strength refers to a sense of being capable and having the ability to persevere.
Reported by single or few respondents
Increase internet security
(myspace, facebook, email)
Get a dog
Apply for a gun permit
Sleep with a knife under
Find new friends/confidants
Change locks (5%)
Step 4: Make Choices Based on
Risk Priorities & Options
In MCDM, an option has “strict dominance” if it is
better than others on some criteria, and at least as
good on all others.
The result: NOT a generic checklist of safety
precautions, BUT a personalized plan that links
coping responses to specific risks.
Fleeing on an emergency basis with few
belongings and possibly not even with your
children, will not minimize many risks faced by
typical battered women.
Can improve our response to the most disadvantaged
women as help them address multiple needs.
Victims who are seen as poor copers or in “denial” may
be prioritizing other risks.
Holistic advocacy, using MCDM, has the potential to
considerably broaden the population that seeks help from
domestic violence advocates, as many perceive advocacy
is primarily about free shelter.
Next steps: Further testing of revised version (Beta
11.0!) with traditional dv agency clients and also hope to
evaluate with less disadvantaged women.
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