Module 5: Understanding Separation

Module Purpose

The purpose of this module to:

  • Understand post-separation violence and abuse.
  • Recognize the unique risks and issues for adult's and children post-separation.
  • Identify and locate information and resources specific for families post-separation.

Lived Experience: Peggy Carlson


Read Peggy's Story

I’m Peggy, and I’m a 32-year-old woman with an 8-year-old boy named Brian and a 12-year-old girl named Amanda. My husband and I have been married for 14 years. I work as a medical assistant. We live in a small, rural town, where everybody is into everyone else’s business.

Bruce has been pounding on me for 12 years, starting right after our daughter Amanda was born. Most of our fights are about sex, but sometimes they’re about work, or the kids, or whatever. When does “no” really means “no”? I know he’s had a hard time controlling himself, but that doesn’t mean he gets to hit me over and over. The problem is that I really do love him and I know the kids love him – even Amanda – even though she’s so mad at him right now. So it’s hard to break up the family. But when I was in the hospital overnight this last time, when he broke my ribs, I really got to think about what I really need to do. I need to leave him, because worse things could come of this then my just getting hit sometimes. But then, sometimes, I just think it’s easier to stay with him. If I actually leave him, he’ll get even angrier, and plus, I really do love him. Family is important.


Risks of Separation

It is important for us to recognize the complex decision-making process people go through when considering leaving their relationships. They weigh many different aspects of risk, including risks related to the abuse, additional challenges beyond their relationship, as well as other personal factors (1).

Examples of risks related to the abuse

  • Physical violence
  • Isolation
  • Financial issues
  • Risk to the children
  • Loss of family and friends

Leaving can be a dangerous time for a person in an abusive relationship. There is evidence that the risk of violence may increase when a victim attempts to end the relationship or separate from the person who is abusing. While only a small percentage of abusive intimate partner relationships end in murder, there is an increased risk at separation (2).

Examples of challenges beyond the relationship

  • Loss of a job
  • Mental and/or physical health
  • Substance abuse
  • Poverty
  • Homelessness
  • Discrimination

Examples of personal factors

  • Beliefs and values
  • Culture
  • Community

Each person may weigh these aspects differently. It is important to partner with people to better understand their assessment of their safety and well-being in their decision-making process. Research shows that people who are experiencing abuse can be more accurate than others in identifying the risk of severe and potentially lethal violence (3). At the same time, people may underestimate the risk of lethal violence. Thus, it is critical for people working with families experiencing intimate partner violence to be equipped with tools such as the Danger Assessment tool. Click the following links to download the Danger Assessment tool in English and in Spanish.

Module Seven of this curriculum explores safety and safety-planning in more detail.

Some strategies for partnering with parents 

  • Exploring what areas of their life they would like support
  • Acknowledge that leaving is complex and can be dangerous
  • Support parents’ choices
  • Be present and open
  • Offer options that match their life circumstances


  1. Davies, J. (2008). When abused women stay…advocacy beyond leaving. Publication #20 in the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence series, Building Comprehensive Solutions to Domestic Violence; Davies, J., Lyon, E., & Monti-Catania, D. (1998). Safety planning with battered women: Complex lives/difficult choices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 
  2. Campbell, J. C., et al. (2003). Risk factors for femicide in abusive relationships: Results from a mulitsite case control study. American Journal of Public Health 93 (7), 1089-1097; Intimate Partner Violence Risk Assessment Validation Study
  3. Roehl, J., O’Sullivan, C. Webster, D., Campbell, J. (2005) Intimate Partner Violence Risk Assessment Validation Study, Final Report 

Lived Experience: Amanda Carlson


Read Amanda's Story

I can’t believe this. My mom and dad are getting back together, again. Mom let him move back into the house last week. They’re acting all kissy-face with each other and it’s gross and horrible and I can’t believe her. It always happens like this though. They get mad, and Dad hits Mom, and she says “never again” but then she takes him back. It will be great for a few weeks—you’ll see—and then it will get awful. Again.

My stomach hurts just thinking about it. Sometimes I can’t sleep because it hurts, and the other day, in choir, I felt so sick that I had to go to the school nurse and lie down. It helps me to just have a place to be safe and rest. She was asking me all sorts of questions about stuff—I’m in there a lot, especially recently. I can tell she cares about me, but of course I don’t tell her anything. I mean, I know my dad went to jail and stuff for a while, so it’s out there what he does, but I don’t want everyone knowing, especially not at school. I don't want people talking about me like I am a problem kid. 

What I really hate is that I can’t go home and relax like other kids. I go home and I want to slam the door and yell and tell my mom how mad I am at her, but he’s there most of the time, and I don’t want to make things worse. I’ve been spending a lot of time after school at my friend Avery’s house—her mom doesn’t mind. I wish I could just live there. It's calm at her house. But I would miss my mom and my brother too much.


Responses to Leaving

When a person who is abusing starts to feel that their partner might leave or has left they may employ strategies to get them to stay.

People may try to lure their partner back through different strategies

  • Make promises of change
  • Try to engage family and friends to be on their side
  • Threaten to harm family or friends
  • Use their children

A parent may use children in the following ways

  • Use the children to relay messages to the parent who is being abused
  • Redirect abusive behavior toward the children
  • Threaten to take the children
  • Use bribes and promises to manipulate the children
  • Undermine the primary parents parenting

People may use various strategies of control

  • Quit a job and/or getting paid under the table in order to reduce or avoid child support payments
  • Use the court system by filing petitions and other pleadings that require ongoing court dates
  • Violate restraining orders
  • Make reports to Children and Family Services
  • Stop payments for the car and insurance
  • Stalking

If a person has made a decision to leave, they may need additional support and resources to address risks and challenges they face. Supervised visitation programs can be used an intervention program to create an environment of safety for parents and their children. 

Supervised visitation programs centralize safety for parents and their children

  • Minimize risk
  • Reduce opportunities for ongoing abuse
  • Enhance safety and well-being for children and youth
  • Connect adult victims with support and resource

Programs that are designed to serve families experiencing abuse

  • Have an in-depth knowledge of the dynamics of abuse
  • Understand post-separation abuse
  • Understand the adult victim’s and children’s behavior
  • Have skill in recognizing and avoiding the efforts of a person to use others as a tactic of coercion

Some other needs after people separate 

  • Housing
  • Economic support
  • Employment
  • Advocates and other community partners who understand the dynamics of post-separation abusing
  • Legal representation and services
  • Individual and family advocacy
  • Transportation
  • Child care
  • Medical and dental care

Key partnerships include

  • Domestic violence programs
  • Civil and criminal legal systems
  • Schools
  • Agencies serving children and families

Lived Experience: Brian Carlson

Read Brian's Story


I can’t wait for the weekend when I get to see my dad. He promised to take me to a baseball game and even better, he promised we could have pizza for breakfast and dinner. Mom would never let us do that! My dad is so cool, he lets us do anything we want. I don’t understand why my mom won’t just let dad come home, like dad always says “she is so stubborn.” Last weekend dad and I talked about how to convince mom that we should be a family again. It seemed like a good idea until I asked mom. She got really sad and started to cry.

Critical Thinking

This section is intended to allow us to integrate the training content into the lived experiences of families. Each of these critical thinking questions addresses one or more of the people in the Carlson, Choi, or Johnson families, and examines an aspect of their lives.

Take time to think about each of these questions, and think about responses from multiple stakeholders’ points of view. It may be helpful to go back and review sections of the curriculum, re-read the experiences of each family member, and engage in dialogue with community partners and co-workers.

  • What support and services would your organization/agency have to support Peggy?

  • If Peggy walked into your organization/agency, what would be some of the indicators that your program was organized to help her?

  • What are some indicators that would help you know how Amanda and Brian are doing?

  • What are the risks and concerns that the school nurse might have about Amanda’s safety and well-being?

  • How might the nurse approach Peggy, Amanda’s mom, to support her in helping Amanda?