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How to ask for help: domestic violence distress signals

How to ask for help: domestic violence distress signals
Axelrod & Associates, P.A.

Is there a universal domestic violence distress signal – a way to signal for help if you are experiencing domestic violence but you are unable to call 911 or call for help because your abuser is watching your every move?

Can’t you just call the police?

Maybe, but what will you do when the police decline to make an arrest, or when the abuser is released on bond? Who can you turn to for help?

And what can you do if your abuser is preventing access to your phone or computer? If you are in imminent danger of bodily harm or even death, and you have no way of asking for help without triggering violence?

Below, we will cover some of the ways that you can ask for and get help if you are in an abusive situation – particularly when your abuser is monitoring your every move and preventing you from contacting authorities.


If you aren’t sure who to call or where to turn, and you have access to a phone or computer, there are resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline with options to call, chat online, or text for help, which also provides a directory for local assistance providers you can contact in your area.

Of course, the Hotline currently also has a disclaimer that says, “At this time, we are experiencing unusually high call/chat volume. Wait times to connect with our live advocates may be longer than 15 minutes.”

We understand that there are times when 15 minutes or longer on hold with a domestic abuse hotline may trigger the violence that a domestic violence victim is trying to avoid, and there are times when a person who is a victim of domestic violence or kidnapping simply cannot pick up the phone and call for help.

What then?

Canadian Women’s Signal for Help/ Domestic Violence Distress Signal

The closest thing we have to a “universal” distress signal is a hand signal developed in Canada during the 2020 pandemic when many people were confined to their homes and at greater risk of domestic violence.

It is a simple, one-handed signal that a person can make while on a video call, in a store, or from a motor vehicle, by opening their hand, palm forward, with the thumb tucked in, and then closing the fingers over the thumb, trapping it.

What Does the Distress Signal Mean?

If you see someone making this signal, what does it mean? What should you do?

It does not mean call 911 or call the authorities immediately, although you should use your best judgment if you see a person in obvious distress.

It does mean that the person is asking for help and wants you to check in with them – in a safe way that does not alert a potential abuser – to find out what they need and how you can help.

They might need you to immediately call 911, but they also may need someone to listen, help them find services, or help them get away from their abuser without involving law enforcement (understanding that the appearance of law enforcement may escalate an already-dangerous situation).

It is a silent call for help that could be helpful in many different situations – for example, a teenage girl used the signal from a vehicle to ask other motorists for help after she was reportedly kidnapped by an older man:

Police say the teenager told investigators that she traveled with the man through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio. Authorities allege she had been attempting to get motorists’ attention to call 911.

Following the police stop, James Herbert Brick, 61, was arrested at the scene and charged with unlawful imprisonment, the sheriff’s office said. He remains in custody.


Another domestic violence distress signal that has gotten attention recently is the “Black Dot Campaign,” where domestic violence victims are encouraged to place a black dot on their palm and “flash” the dot to persons who may be able to help or contact authorities.

The “Black Dot Campaign” has been criticized as potentially dangerous – an abuser may see the black dot and, given the media attention publicizing it, may know what it means. Despite this, if you see a person flashing a black dot on the palm of their hand, you should take action to find out if they are safe and to seek help.

Other warning signs that family and friends can look for include:

  • A person who seems afraid of their partner or overly anxious to please them,
  • A person who seems like they must check in constantly with their partner, reporting their whereabouts and what they’re doing at all times,
  • Frequent, harassing phone calls from a partner,
  • Excuses for bruises or injuries that do not make sense, clothing or sunglasses that cover bruises or injuries,
  • When a person seems to be restricted from meeting with or socializing with their family and friends,
  • Limited access to money, credit cards, or transportation,
  • Unexplained depression, suicidal thoughts, or loss of self-esteem.

If you suspect abuse, talk to the person, and find out what is happening. Be supportive and offer help or connect the person with professionals who can help. If there is immediate danger, call 911 or contact law enforcement when necessary.

How Can Your Attorney Help?

First, the domestic violence victim must be removed from danger – we can help by connecting DV victims with local resources including domestic violence shelters, law enforcement, and counseling services.

If you are a victim of domestic violence, your attorney can help you to begin the process of 1) obtaining a divorce from an abusive spouse, 2) protecting your children with an emergency hearing in the family court, or 3) obtaining a temporary order that ensures you have access to your property, finances, spousal support, and child support when appropriate.

An order of protection from the family court or a restraining order from a magistrate may help to prevent future harassment and provide some legal protections for the domestic violence victim.


If you or your children are in danger and you believe an Order of Protection may help, talk to your Myrtle Beach divorce attorney on the Axelrod team as soon as possible. We can help you to secure the safety of yourself or your children by requesting an emergency hearing and an Order of Protection from the family court.

Call now at 843-916-9300 or get in touch through our website to talk with a SC divorce attorney today.

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