24 November 2021

Surviving an abusive relationship: an exit strategy

Trigger Warning: The following article contains content about domestic violence which some people might find disturbing.

Crisis support: If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact emergency services on 000. Other services include: Lifeline 13 11 14 and Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.


The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that kicks off on 25 November 2021, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day.

As pro bono legal advisers to the Rape and Domestic Violence Services (RDVS) in Sydney, Bartier Perry understands the importance of helping victims looking to leave abusive relationships. Partners Alicia Toberty and Sharon Levy have a particular insight into gender-based violence – Alicia in her work as a family lawyer and Sharon as the Chair of The Haven, Nepean Women’s Shelter.

As part of our support for the 16 Days of Activism, Alicia and Sharon provide practical tips and discuss critical survival and exit strategies.

Leaving an abusive relationship safely takes planning and precision. Once you have made the decision to leave, it’s important that you take some time to plan an exit strategy so that you remain safe as you take the first steps toward a life free of violence.

On average, a victim will try to leave an abusive relationship a total of seven times before they are successful. The most dangerous time for victims is when trying to leave, so it is important to remain vigilant.

Set out below is a list of tips which will help you plan your exit. While not exhaustive, it will give you an idea as to some of the most important things you can do to ensure your safety.

  1. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, identify three or four people to be your “trusted circle”. You will need to call upon your trusted circle whilst executing this plan so it’s important that you identify people who are reliable and who you trust implicitly. Ideally, they will be close family members and friends. Tell your trusted circle that you are preparing to leave and that you will need their assistance to do so.

  2. Open a Safety Deposit Box (SDB). You will need this to keep important documents and items hidden and secured away from your abuser in anticipation of your exit.

  3. Open your own bank account if you don’t already have one. Some bank accounts can be opened online without having to visit a branch, particularly if you’re opening an account at a bank in which you already hold an account. Most banks have also relaxed ID requirements for victims of domestic violence opening their own bank accounts.

  4. Make sure you have somewhere to go once you leave. If a short stay rental is out of the question and you don't have friends or family in the area, there are some amazing resources available (listed at the foot of this article) for victims making the break.

  5. Be very careful about what you search online with your phone and computer. Should you need to do any online research, we suggest using devices that belong to your trusted circle. Alternatively, use a public computer at a library or internet café or a computer in the workplace. The websites of many resources have a “hide now” function to enable the page to be closed quickly should it become necessary.

  6. If you drink alcohol, make a pact to yourself to abstain until you are safe. You might need to leave unexpectedly in the middle of the night. You might need your balance and co-ordination to fend off an attack. You may also need your attention to detail and memory to avoid potential attempts by your abuser to gaslight you.

  7. Withdraw small amounts of cash every time you shop somewhere that offers you cash-out with a card transaction. Withdrawing small amounts of $10 to $20 each time quickly adds up, giving you some cash on hand for when you leave. If you are using a joint bank account, be careful that your bank doesn’t list the cash withdrawals as its own transaction on your bank statements. Some banks will do this, but others will not.

  8. Hide the cash in multiple places and don’t ever keep it all together. Put $10’s and $20’s in the pages of books, in coat pockets, in unused purses and toiletry bags. Every so often, collect the cash and place it in your SDB.

  9. Download an app that will record all your calls, inbound and outbound, automatically. Upload any threatening calls to Dropbox or Google Drive.

  10. Save threatening text messages. If you are an Android user, the Textra app allows you to save your conversations by emailing you a pdf, timestamps and all. Ensure your email address is private or create a new one if necessary.

  11. Make four duplicate sets of your car keys and house keys so you will always have access. Hide two sets in different places around your home and provide one set to a member of your trusted circle and stash the last set in your SDB.

  12. Get your hands on an extra smart phone to use when you leave and pay cash. We suggest purchasing one that is pre-paid from either Woolworths or Coles. Hide it in your SDB until it is time to leave. Give your new number to your trusted circle but it’s important that you do not start using the phone until after you have left.

  13. Retain your old smart phone but make sure it is switched off before you leave so that its location cannot be tracked. Backup its data to Dropbox or Google Drive in the days prior to your exit. If you use an iPhone, do not back up to iCloud. Make a list of apps and passwords you use so that you can reinstall the apps to your new phone after you have left. Place this list in your SDB.

  14. Start establishing safe places your abuser is not aware of. In the early days after your exit, it might be helpful to have a safe place to use the bathroom, charge your phone and even take a shower. If finances allow, consider getting a membership to a low- cost gym such as Anytime Fitness or another low-cost membership only facility with multiple locations and extended hours so that you can use their facilities as needed.

  15. Keep an overnight bag either in your car or with your trusted circle. Include at least one outfit for yourself and your children, plus some toiletries. In the event you have an ADVO, the Police will facilitate your safe return to the property to collect any further personal effects and belongings after your departure.

  16. Keep your prescriptions secured so that your abuser can't hide, withhold, destroy, tamper with, or consume them. In the days prior to your exit, place the prescriptions in your SDB for you to collect as and when necessary.

  17. Further to 16, if you are taking regular medications, we suggest chatting to your GP about getting a “cushion” supply of vital medications (10 days is pretty standard) that you can also keep in your SDB. This supply will get you through the first week and allow you to focus on your safety.

  18. These next two tips are difficult, but they can be critical, especially if your abuser has access to firearms. Consider reaching out to a few trusted neighbours, and briefly explain your situation. Ask them to call 000 if they hear anything that sounds like a gunshot. Ask them not to pause and wonder if it was fireworks, a car backfiring or a door slamming. The Police always prefer arriving to a false alarm than the alternative.

  19. If you have children who are of age and who know the severity of the situation, set up a code word with them. When they hear you say the code word, they need to sneak out and alert a safe neighbour by saying: "My Mum used the code word, so please help me call 000 right now."

  20. In the days prior to leaving, find an excuse to visit a mechanic. Ask the mechanic to sweep your entire vehicle for any kind of hidden GPS device. Make sure the vehicle is thoroughly checked over, even in between the rear seats and sewn into the upholstery. If tracking devices are found, don’t remove them or switch them off until you leave. Ask the mechanic to show you what to do to remove them. If your abuser asks why you needed to see a mechanic, say that your car was making a weird noise.

  21. If your abuser has restricted your access to joint bank accounts and this is your only source of funds, you will need to visit the bank in which your account is held. Explain your situation and ask for assistance in respect of being able to withdraw funds on the day you leave. Most banks these days have processes in place to assist victims of financial abuse gain access to their funds and we have provided a list of these institutions below. Once you have received assistance and are fully briefed on the process, you will need to ensure that the first thing you do when you leave is to visit the bank and withdraw a lump sum or have it transferred into your newly opened account.

  22. When you get to where you’re going, pay a visit to the local Police station and tell them you’ve just left an abusive relationship. Provide them with a description of your abuser and any vehicle they drive with the registration number.

You know your situation best. Not all of these strategies will be a good fit for your situation, but each one has the potential to save lives. Remember - an abusive relationship is MOST dangerous when you try to leave. Some of this advice may sound extreme, but it could make all the difference when you make the decision to leave.

Other things to consider

Rental tenancies

There are various options available to tenants if there is violence in a rented home. Important things to note include:

  • If a tenant or their dependent child are experiencing domestic violence, they can end their tenancy immediately without being penalised by giving to the landlord a domestic violence termination notice.

  • If a victim decides to stay in the rented property and a final Apprehended Domestic Violence Order (ADVO) has been granted that excludes a perpetrator co-tenant from accessing the property, then the perpetrator’s co-tenancy will automatically end.

  • Victim tenants cannot be held responsible for any damage to the property by the perpetrator (whether or not they are a co-tenant).

Relationship debt

Common forms of relationship debt are signing a guarantee or taking a joint loan with your partner or spouse. In these circumstances, you may become responsible for paying the entire amount owed by the borrower. 

Hire purchase and lease agreements as well as utility, phone and internet bills are other forms of relationship debt.

While it can be difficult to get out of relationship debt, there may be some circumstances which could be relevant in reducing this debt, such as whether you signed and understood the relevant documents and whether the contract terms are unfair.

We suggest you obtain legal advice to assist with any relationship debt.

Important numbers

The following numbers can assist victims of domestic and family violence:

  • National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service: 1800 737 732

  • NSW Domestic Violence Crisis Line: 1800 65 64 63

  • NSW Link2Home Crisis Accommodation and Referrals: 1800 152 152

  • Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14

  • IF YOU ARE IN AN EMERGENCY, CALL 000

Financial Institutions and other resources

Commbank

NAB

Westpac

St George

Bank of Queensland

Bendigo Bank  

Beyond Bank

The Escaping Violence Payment (EVP) Program has just been introduced in October 2021 and is available for people 18+ who have recently experienced family violence, have a changed living situation and are experiencing financial stress. Payments of up to $5,000 are available. More details can be found here.

If you need advice on your situation, please contact the authors of this article for a confidential discussion.

Authors: Alicia Toberty (Private Clients - Family Law) and Sharon Levy (Dispute Resolution and Advisory) and Founder of The Haven – Nepean Women’s Shelter