Many thanks to Miranda Brijlall, articling student at Luke’s Place, who prepared this response with assistance from Legal Director, Pamela Cross.
In circumstances of family violence, children as well as their mothers need to take care of themselves by developing a safety plan containing steps to increase and maintain their own safety, to the extent this is possible.
The aim of safety planning with children is similar to that for safety planning with adults: to equip them with some practical and realistic skills that they can use when they feel unsafe because of the abuse their mother is being subjected to and in emergency situations.
The details of a child’s safety plan, like the mother’s safety plan, will depend on specific circumstances of the family’s situation. In addition, a child’s safety plan will be shaped by the age of the child.
It is a good idea for a mother to discuss the concept and purpose of a safety plan with her children. She can talk with them about how to identify threats to their safety and reassure them that, if they feel unsafe, if it fine for them to seek help. The conversation can then move on to a discussion about ways to avoid or manage unsafe situations.
If keeping a copy of a written safety plan for the child/ren is not safe, discussing possible scenarios and repeating responses and actions can help the child/ren remember the steps in the plan.
Here are some core safety planning points to include in a child’s safety plan.
Creating a code word
The mother and children should agree on a word that any of them can use when they need help. Children need to understand the importance of never using this word as a joke as well as what they need to do if they hear their mother use the word. For instance, the word “elephant” could mean dial 911 and the word “jaguar” could mean run out of the house to the neighbour.
Going to a safe place
A mother can help her children identify a safe place for them to go in their home or neighbourhood when the fighting, arguing or shouting starts.
Depending on the child’s age and developmental capabilities, the child may be able to:
- Draw a map or plan of their home to identify exits and safe places (e.g.; rooms with a lock and a possible means of escape, such as through a window)
- Identify people in their life they feel safe with and how they can access them in an emergency
- Identify somewhere close by they can go if they do not feel safe at home when the fighting starts. For example, are there neighbours or a family member close by? Does the child know them and how to contact them? Can the child have a cell phone with these numbers pre-programmed into them? Are they safe? Would they help? Are there safe places outside the home even if there are no nearby neighbours (for example, a park, a store, a library, the police station or hospital)?
Staying out of the way
A mother can talk with her child/ren about what they can do before, during and after the fighting so they don’t get in the middle, reminding them that the best way for them to help is to keep safe.
Calling for help
Explaining to children how to identify an emergency and how to call 911 is important, as is developing a script for children to use. It is also a good idea to help younger children learn their address and phone number as well as their full name.
Rehearsing the script ahead of time is important.
Here is an example of a script:
Dial: 9 1 1.
They will say: “POLICE, FIRE, AMBULANCE”
You answer: Police
My name is _________________________________.
I am ______________ years old.
I need help. Send the police.
Someone is hurting my mom.
The address here is ___________________________.
The phone number here is ______________________.
Emergency numbers and response protocols vary throughout the province, especially in rural and remote communities. Some rural communities do not have street names or numbers.
As a result, the safety plans of both mothers and children will have to be adapted to fit with the circumstances of the community where they live.
Children need someone to talk to about what is going on at home. Part of a safety plan means helping children identify people they feel safe and comfortable talking with about the abuse in their family. Developing a safe and open communication through counselling and talking about their experiences will help them understand how they feel and know that they are not alone.
Knowing who is responsible
It is important for children to receive constant messages that they are not the ones who are responsible for the fighting, arguing or domestic abuse that is happening.
Understanding that family violence is not okay
Children can manage the abuse better if they understand what it is, the many forms that it can take and that it is not okay. Depending on their age, they may want to know which forms of abuse are against the law and which are not.
There are certain situations where children may be particularly at risk. Safety plans may need to be discussed and created specifically for these kinds of situations:
- picking up and dropping off children from day-care, school, the ex-partners house or access point
- when the abuser has unsupervised visits with the children
- when you leaving children at school, day care or some other public location. It is important to let whomever is in charge know who is allowed to pick up your children and what to do if someone who is not allowed to pick them up shows up
- if a child has to testify in court.
Above all, it is important for children of all ages to understand that:
- the abuse is not their responsibility
- their first job is to keep themselves safe
- it is okay to tell safe adults about what is going on at home
- they can still love both their parents
For more information about safety planning with children:
- Family Court and Beyond, 2018. Worksheet: Safety plan for children.
- Peel Committee Against Woman Abuse, 2010. “Creating a Safety Plan”, p. 18 (PDF)
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline, 2011. “Safety Planning with Children”
- Ministry of Justice (British Columbia), 2013. “Safety Planning with Children and Youth: A Toolkit for Working with Children and Youth Exposed to Domestic Violence”, p. 16-23 (PDF)