For victims of domestic violence, the COVID-19 pandemic presents another obstacle when trying to leave toxic situations and move out. With stay-at-home orders, job losses, financial and emotional hardships, and lack of resources or support, moving out and escaping an abuser unharmed can seem like an intimidating effort.
If you’re experiencing domestic violence and need to leave quickly, you may be too anxious or frightened to hash out the details. So, below is a plan to follow. If you don’t have time to do everything on this list—that’s okay. Oftentimes, people escaping abuse don’t have days or weeks to plan. Pick out what works for your situation and do whatever you can do to stay safe.
If abuse has escalated to the point that you fear for your life or that of any children in the house, please call 9-1-1. Read on to see moving tips for those escaping domestic violence, and download the moving safety guide designed to help abuse survivors plan a safe relocation.
Before Moving: Plan Your Exit
If you live with an abuser, you may not feel you have the courage to move out yet. And that’s okay. Even before you’re ready to take that first step, planning is critical. Doing it early—even if you’re not prepared to leave as soon as possible—will boost your chances of success.
Here are some tips from movers and our friends at Fort Bend Women’s Center:
- Set aside money when you can. Shelters offer services free of charge. It’s still a great idea to have your own money to access depending on how you are moving out and your post-move plans.
- Things will be easier if you have money to access independently. Try setting up a checking or savings account in your own name at a bank that is separate from your partner.
Gather your most important and valuable items.
It doesn’t have to be all at once, but set aside what you can, whenever you can. (Examples: extra car keys, car title/lease paperwork, emergency cash, insurance cards, birth/marriage certificates, social security cards, health records, extra medications, debit/credit cards, extra clothes, children’s clothing or supplies, any evidence of physical abuse— like photos, journals, notes, medical or police records, etc.).
- Store them in a private place. Private, as in, ONLY you have access to it. Do not leave this with anyone close to your abuser or any place where your abuser could easily find it. (Examples: a personal lockbox, a backpack, with a trusted friend or family member, or in a safety deposit box in a bank your abuser doesn’t know about).
- Make copies of any documents your abuser is likely to notice are missing.
Create a code word, phrase, or signal.
If you have children or other loved ones living with you and your abuser, they need to know exactly what to do when you say this. Also do this with any trusted friends, family, or neighbors you can call on stay with or help you leave. (Examples of a plan: Go to a neighbor’s home, ask your school staff to call/text me, call grandma).
In case you’re in a situation where your abuser is closely monitoring your every move, or listening, create a code term that sounds natural but is unique to you and your loved ones. You should also practice what to do in case of danger—especially if you have kids.
If possible, get your own cell phone.
The chance that an abuser has secretly installed a surveillance app on their victim’s phone is extremely high. Many IPS (intimate partner surveillance) apps can be installed without even touching a cell phone.
According to MIT’s Technology Review, one survivor even recounts how opening a photo texted from her ex-boyfriend gave him total access to her cellphone—including her apps, current location, emails, passwords, camera, and even social media accounts.
If you can get your own phone, use a passcode that can’t be easily guessed.
How to safely handle a cell phone to plan your move:
- DO NOT ditch the compromised phone, (this could enrage the abuser). Use it for simple tasks, but do not use it to call/ search for movers or domestic abuse resources.
- Suspect you’re being spied on? Don’t bother paying for anti-spyware apps since most can’t find all the creepy software, and the abuser could react violently. The only way to remove it is to factory reset the phone, and that will remove all your current apps and settings. It’s best to get a cheap phone that allows you to privately text, browse the internet, plan your move, and make calls to police or family violence centers.
Can’t get your own cell phone?
Keep the Fort Bend Women’s Center hotline number handy: 281-342-4357. They suggest “saving it under something innocent like the name of a restaurant [or business] you like.”
To plan your move from an abusive situation:
- Use a public computer at a library, school, or friend’s house. If you know where you’ll be moving, set up mail forwarding through your local United States Post Office, or do it online for $1.05. If you don’t know exactly where you’re going, you can get help from a shelter when you’re there. (Log out of all services and clear your history when you’re done.)
- Research how you’ll move. Will another trusted adult be helping you move? Will you hire a moving company instead? Make sure that whatever company you choose has domestic violence policies in place (what we call “privacy moves”), and that the movers have undergone criminal background checks. We call these “privacy moves” because we take every precaution to protect your privacy—which is vital in cases of abuse. No one who calls will be able to discuss details of the move just by using your name. In fact, you’ll be issued a personal file locator number so only you can review the move information.
- Know your options: call shelters in advance. This is important to learn the policies about whom they allow to stay or visit. Even if there isn’t room, a shelter can often refer you to another place. Hotels are often used to house people escaping abuse when centers are full, and staff members will assist with meals, health care, child care, pet care, education, job training, counseling, waivers for utilities and phone service, legal help, longer-term shelter, and more.
- Shelters may be able to help you with pets. Take any evidence you gathered previously, (like photos or medical records of abuse). Besides legal help, you’ll also want to ask if the shelter is pet-friendly. Typically, service and support animals are welcome. If not, you can leave your pet with a trusted friend or family member out of the abuser’s reach in case (s)he tries to retaliate. Shelters may also be able to connect you with resources on fostering your pet if necessary. Fort Bend Women’s Center, for example, has connections with the Houston Humane Society and can help make arrangements for fostering or sheltering pets.
- Determine the best time to leave. If you live with your partner, ask yourself: when do they go to work or leave the home for extended periods of time? Are there any rooms you feel safe in that you can exit from in case you have to move quickly? If you don’t live with your partner, consider: When is the best time for you to be alone or have privacy?
You’ll need to memorize important information, like phone numbers or addresses of trusted neighbors, friends, or family. If you have children, tell them to memorize it too. Agree on a code word/phrase that will let everyone involved know what to do when it is used.
Consider free private security.
There are some nonprofits that help domestic abuse victims move by standing watch in case an abuser shows up unannounced. One organization, called Reynolds Protection, is right here in Dallas, Texas!
On Move Day: Time Is of the Essence
When survivors of violence leave their abusers, it can be a dangerous time. But you are strong enough to make it out! These steps will help make it easier on the day of your move.
Confirm the details with your movers & others
Whether you’re hiring pros or supporters to help you move—or getting out by yourself—review how you want your move to work. Go over your code words and escape plan with children or people who are helping you move. Use a public computer (like at a library or at most shipping stores) to print out the destination in case your phone is being spied on.
Make sure your essentials are ready to go.
In a hurry? Grab the essentials that you packed previously and go. Remember those copies you made? Leave them in case you have little to no belongings to move and don’t want your abuser to quickly catch on that you’ve left.
What to do if you don’t have boxes (or the money to buy them)
Ask your local grocery store. These boxes will probably be somewhat worn or less sturdy (and you may be able to only use them once), but grocery store boxes are a good fix if you have no money.
Your moving company can also provide these—especially if they have packing services.
Lock up anything that could be used as a weapon.
Make sure these items are as hard to reach as possible. (Example: Put things like guns, knives, or bats in a safe, on top of kitchen cabinets, or in a toilet water tank.) Also, review where your exits and windows are located in case you have to run to another room.
Know your end destination.
Will you be leaving unexpectedly? Where will you go and how will you get there? Have your printed directions ready—especially if you think your cell phone is being used to spy on you.
If you have children at school and can’t pick them up before moving…
Ask the front office to change release privileges so an abusive partner cannot pick them up after finding out you have left. Sometimes when abusers feel they have lost control, they may try to lash out and retaliate by hurting your loved ones. Do this on the same day and time you’re planning to leave home you share with your abuser.
Ditch the compromised cell phone.
Remember: it’s highly likely that your abuser is spying on your location and whatever info passes to or from your phone. Once you are safely on your way to your destination, that is the time to ditch your current phone or do a factory reset. But first, log out of every online and app account you own so they can’t access your location through your app and online account permissions.
NOTE: Things to know before doing a factory reset on your phone.
Resetting your phone will remove your current apps and settings, so you’ll have to download and log into them again. Some apps you should avoid downloading again (like certain email apps) and only access them through a computer.
Update each account password and its security questions.
Change your passwords to something the abuser can’t guess. Do this for your email account first, because social media and other apps will often send location info to your email to authorize any changes.
Unable to discard the compromised phone?
Disable your Bluetooth, Bluetooth scanning, and location so your phone cannot communicate with other devices. This is usually called Location Sharing in your Settings or menu bar. Look in Settings to ensure Bluetooth scanning is disabled, as apps can use it to share your location even if you have Bluetooth turned off.
Check each application in your privacy and security settings to ensure suspicious-looking apps cannot access and share your information. Download Google Voice, a free service that generates a virtual phone number for you to make and screen calls or texts.
Ensure that no one can make changes to your wireless service.
If you are the account holder for your wireless service, call and ask them to put additional security measures in place, or change your verbal PIN. If you are setting up a new service, inform them of your situation as many providers will waive fees.
Have your personal phone easily available & set up Emergency SOS.
Moving out due to domestic violence can be scary, so it’s necessary to be prepared. Using the SOS feature is easy and will call the police first, then alert your emergency contacts in case you are in danger.
NOTE: In case of danger, use your Emergency SOS buttons or call 9-1-1 .
Use the secret code/phrase/signal with any children or people who are helping you move. Do not run to where your children or loved ones are, in case your partner tries to hurt them. If you must go to another room, make sure it has an exit.
What to do if your abuser shows up unexpectedly.
Your abuser may already be home when your friends/movers arrive— so it’s important that your helpers are prepared. For movers, this means acting on their privacy move policies.
Example: at 3 Men Movers, this includes appearing as if they have the wrong house.
For children or supporters helping you move, this means acting on your emergency code word plan or calling 9-1-1 in case your partner becomes threatening or violent.
Turn off any GPS navigation in your car or if you have it on your phone.
Reach out to your safe place.
Wherever you’re going—be it a shelter or a loved one’s home—reach out first to see if they can provide you with any help or transportation to your destination.
After Moving: Protect Your Future
Follow these post-move privacy tips to securely embark on a new, brighter future.
Get & keep copies of your protective order.
Depending on their funding and access to lawyers, shelter or domestic violence attorney may be able to connect you with a family violence attorney or help you fill out paperwork—but you may have to persistently check on the status. Children and pets can be included in these orders, too.
Carry a certified copy of the protective order with you everywhere you go. Addresses may be on these documents or police reports, so consider using a P.O. box or a friend’s address for your mail. Be careful who and where you submit your new phone number and address.
Ask for service deposit waivers.
Getting a break for a while will help you gain financial independence and avoid returning to toxic partners who make you feel like you can’t succeed without them. In Texas, the deposit for utilities (like gas, electricity, and wireless/phone service) can be waived or reduced to a monthly basis.
The requirements include getting a letter signed by Certifying Entity and faxing it to the utility company (you can use faxes at any shipping/postal store).
According to the Public Utility Commission of Texas, this is who can sign a utility waiver:
- Family violence centers
- Treating medical staff
- Law enforcement personnel
- Office of Texas District or County Attorney
- Office of the Attorney General
- Grantees of the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation
If you don't live in Texas, call your state's utility authority to find out if waivers are available, and who can sign one for you.
Change up your routine.
If you take the same route to/from work, take a different route. Avoid going to the places your abuser knows. If you normally work or shop at night, try switching to the daytime. The most vulnerable time for survivors is when they leave and the abusive partner has lost control. Ensure your abuser can’t predict where you’re going. This will be easier if you’re moving a lengthy distance from where your abuser lives.
Notify your workplace.
You just did an incredibly brave thing by choosing a better future! Someone else’s choices shouldn’t change that. Give a photo of the abuser to your work supervisors, security staff, or coworkers that you trust and work closely with at the same time.
They don’t have to know the details, but they should be aware that (s)he isn’t allowed near the premises to harass, stalk, or threaten you via a protective/restraining order. You can also alert authorities at your children’s school, even if you changed their schools
Unlist your new phone number.
Lock down new emails or social accounts. It’s common for abusers to show lots of remorse or even cry in order to get back into their victims' lives.
This is a manipulative tactic to regain control. If they sense you're holding firm, or if they cannot contact you, abusers may also try to manipulate your mutual family or friends. Unfortunately, you’ll have to make some changes to avoid caving to pressure.
- First, set up two-factor authentication (this is available on almost all Internet-based accounts).
- Next, do a social media cleanse, like blocking your abuser and their friends, not allowing yourself to be tagged in photos without review, not sharing any location tags/check-ins, etc. so they cannot see where you now live. If you share mutual custody of children, it’s more complicated. Shelters can connect you with a family violence attorney who can assist you further.
- Call your wireless company and ask to change or unlist your new phone number.
- Make sure that any mutual family and friends either do not know your new address or can keep it a secret.
Read the Fine Print in New Contracts, Service Agreements, & Privacy Policies.
Finally, avoid doing business with companies who state in their Privacy Policies that your personal information might be sold for marketing purposes.
Set up security in your new space.
Pick security systems (like cameras and alarms) with motion-sensitive lighting and backup that won’t fail in bad weather or can’t work without WiFi. You’ll also want to make sure a simple laser cannot disable them.
Security system companies may also be able to help you settle in with discounts or a monthly waiver. For this, you may be asked to furnish some proof, so consult with your attorney or ask the company what you need to provide.
Replace wooden doors with steel or metal doors.
Secure windows, garages, locks, and doors with security bars or locks so they can’t be opened or kicked in from the outside.
How Survivors Can Get Help for Domestic Violence
If you or someone you know is in an abusive situation and needs help, please contact the following:
- Signs You’re in an Abusive Relationship- Mayo Clinic
- Fort Bend County Women’s Center (https://fbwc.org/) (24/7 free & confidential hotline: 281-342-HELP (4357))
- Get help for digital spying– DIY Cybersecurity for Domestic Violence
- Houston Area Women’s Center (https://hawc.org/) (24/7 free & confidential domestic violence hotline: 1-800-256-0551; sexual assault hotline: 1-800-256-0661)
- National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233, *Advocates are available 24/7 & all calls are free & confidential)
- See your legal rights in Texas- RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)- The Laws In Your State: Texas
- How to Get a Protective Order
- Get a Utility Waiver for Domestic Violence Here