By Mechelle Cichy
After a woman leaves an abusive relationship, who helps her? There are a lot of assumptions about all the people who can or will help her when she leaves. But, what is the reality?
For the longest time, I was blissfully unaware of the true scarcity of help for women who need assistance escaping an abusive relationship. I just assumed she would call the local domestic abuse organization and they would get the ball rolling for her.
In my mind, they would make an escape plan for her or just come sweep her up to safety. She would be protected when she left and they would place her (and any children) in a shelter where there would be no access for her abuser. They will help her fill out all the legal paperwork and get her set up with a new life.
Unfortunately, I was so wrong in so many of my assumptions. Escaping can be one of the loneliest and most terrifying periods of the victim's life. There is limited to no help in many areas of her escape to a new life.
First of all, it isn't easy for the victim to make any call for help at all, and especially to a domestic violence organization or shelter. Her communication may be monitored or controlled by her husband or boyfriend. Fear will cause her to second-guess herself many times before she finally does make the call.
Secondly, the domestic violence organization usually doesn't enter the picture until she has actually committed to leaving or has already left on her own. They don't just come in and steal her away. Instead, they may try to help her map out an escape plan, or tell her to run to the nearest police station or hospital. They can work with her there.
That's the easiest part of her escape from her abuser. Running for safety will be the easiest, least stressful part of her getting away from the abuse. Abuse organizations are all different, but one thing is consistent. They are always short on supply and long on demand. This may cause there to be a limited amount of aid they can render in an escape situation.
Not all abuse centers have shelters to house the escapees. The ones that do are usually full to capacity, so if the victim doesn't already have a safe place to run to, she may end up returning to the abusive relationship just to have a place to lay her head at night.
Legal aid is necessary for the newly-escaped victim. An abuser usually cripples his victim's ability to make decisions. Also, she has no idea what steps to take legally to protect herself, or even what order in which to take those steps. Does she immediately file for divorce? Is a restraining order necessary? Is it even possible? (Yes, this is a valid question. Without proof of danger to herself, she may not be able to get one.) What paperwork does she need to fill out? Where does she go to get the paperwork?
Most abuse centers have legal advocates available to help the victim with these questions and more. They can help fill out the necessary paperwork. But, they cannot tell the victim what to do or give legal advice. She will need to get a lawyer for that. (Which is hard to do without money, and most escapees are penniless.)
You might expect law enforcement officers to be ready and willing to help the victim as she starts out on this frightful journey. However, that is seldom the case. The officers frequently feel like they are stuck in a he-said/she-said scenario. Many times when there is a problem, they arrest both partners and fine them rather than try to figure out what really occurred.
Then, there's the matter of the children. It is likely the parents will share custody, even if there is an abusive parent. Until he or she is proven to be unsafe for the children to be around, they will still have full access to the children. (And often use this time to poison the children against the parent who escaped.)
The kids are confused at the split living arrangements and schedules. They may have witnessed abuse at home before the parents split up, but that may have been nothing compared to the bitterness and evil which may become apparent after the split.
When children are in crisis, they seldom know how to express their feelings. Instead, they act out in various ways. This can include telling lies and some extreme behaviors. They become hard to handle for both parents, teachers and any other caregivers in their lives.
This can lead to problems for the escaping victim to find reliable help with child care. She needs someone who is aware of the dangers her abuser presents and knows how to react if there is an incident. This person also has to be an upstanding citizen above reproach, or there may be accusations of unfit parent at any divorce proceedings for subjecting the children to an unsavory character. The accusations may be false, but they will still be thrown at the victim in an attempt to hurt her.) And this chosen caregiver must be patient and understanding in dealing with poorly behaved children who are dealing with emotional issues.
Such caregivers are not easy to find in general. The best bet is usually family members and close friends, but the victim may not have these available. Her abuser may have driven away or scared off whatever support she might have had at some point. And what about finances – money and employment? Most of the time, victims escape without a dime to their names. Even if she has a steady job already, it's doubtful she saw much of her own paycheck before she left. The worst abusers even refuse to allow their victims to work because it is impossible to control what is being said or revealed to others who may support an escape plan.
So, if she wasn't already working, she has to find a steady job and the transportation to get there. She can try for child support, but many times he will find ways to avoid paying it. When she finally gets a place to live, she still has to refurnish it herself with limited to no funds.
If she still has family and friends who support her, she may lean heavily on them for lack of anyone else who can help her. Years of abuse have given her trust issues, so she's afraid to trust anyone new. Her self-esteem is shattered so she doesn't trust her own judgment either. She may rely on her few support people to tell her what to do and how to do it, too afraid to take a step on her own.
It takes a long time to regain confidence after leaving an abuser. It's frightening. It seems that life is attacking from every direction. She cries herself to sleep many nights feeling overwhelmed and very alone.
So many people ask why they stay with their abuser, or why they went back after they left once or twice. These same judgmental people never ask, “what can I do to help her?”
All of our writers are freelance and survivors of trauma/abuse