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Understanding the Complexities of Relocation for Survivors of Domestic Violence

March 16, 2015

Why Doesn’t the Victim Just Leave?

This question is often asked in relation to victims of domestic violence. The reality is that “leaving” is not that simple; the most dangerous time for a survivor of domestic violence is when she decides to leave. Many abusers react with increased aggression and control when victims try to leave. In situations where the risk of danger is very high, survivors may even contemplate changing their names, their children’s names, and “going underground.” The reality, however, is that in this digital age with the amount of personal data available about people, “going underground” is nearly impossible.

Through our Relocation Counseling and Identity Protection Technical Assistance Project (a partnership with Greater Boston Legal Services), the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) helps advocates, attorneys, and other social service providers work with survivors who need to relocate safely. Recently, we hosted the “Putting the Pieces Together: Survivor Relocation & Identity Protection” conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. Victim advocates, attorneys, and service providers attended sessions focusing on areas that could potentially pose risks for survivors relocating. Topics included how to use technology strategically to protect information, how to keep health information private, and how one can relocate safely while navigating legal issues concerning children.

”I Can Just Disappear”

Some survivors think that they can just disappear: move to a new place, change their name, and get a new job. Even if a survivor does change her/his name, there are many ways in which their new and old identities will be connected. Financial debt, legal obligations, and other information will follow. There may be information the survivor wants to keep associated with her/him, including educational degrees, good credit ratings, or employment history. Some important information, such as a birth certificate, may need to stay in the old name. It’s rather difficult to become a brand new person.

Often, the goal of “disappearing” is so the perpetrator won’t find the survivor. Yet, many survivors are found in fairly simple ways, including through friends and family. Technology also plays a role in locating people, whether it’s a tracking device the abuser has put on the victim’s belongings or the victim or children inadvertently revealing their location through social media.

“I Won’t Leave Without My Kids”

For some survivors, the desire to disappear is to protect their children. Although state laws vary, most states have laws that address one parent’s ability to leave with the children without either informing or getting the consent of the other parent. Except in specific, narrow circumstances, a survivor generally cannot change their child’s name or remove them from the state without the knowledge or permission of the other parent. If survivors want to leave with their children, they will need to consult with a knowledgeable family attorney who can advise them on what to do. Detailed, “plain language,” state-specific legal information about custody is also available on WomensLaw.org (with 15 states currently available in Spanish).

Relocating Safely Is Possible

Despite the obstacles, survivors can successfully relocate with their children. In order to do so, it takes significant safety planning, legal assistance, and constant vigilance afterward to protect the new identity and location. Some strategies include using an Address Confidentially Program (at least 32 states currently have these programs). Survivors should seek help from trained advocates, such as NNEDV’s Safety Net team, before attempting to relocate.

For more information about relocation and privacy, check out these resources: