Safety Tips for Abuse Survivors Navigating Family Court

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Going through custody proceedings in family court poses risks for those who have already suffered domestic abuse, especially if the former abuser is the other party involved in the case. Simply being in close proximity with an abusive ex-partner in courtrooms and waiting areas can open the door for continued harassment, threats of violence, and potentially even actual violence. This remains true even when the victim has protections in place like restraining orders against the abuser.

Given the dangers, it is absolutely critical for an abuse survivor to proactively plan for safety throughout the entire legal process. While the court has a duty to provide protection for victims, in reality the measures taken are often inconsistent and lacking. A survivor cannot rely on the court alone to guarantee safety during proceedings. He or she must be very proactive about personally asking for any accommodations that could enhance safety, as well as taking all possible precautions. The risks require extensive planning both inside and outside the courthouse.

Obtaining Legal Protection Orders

Protection orders, such as restraining orders, non-molestation orders or occupation orders can certainly provide important legal protection during court proceedings. However, an order is ultimately just a piece of paper. If an abuser chooses to violate the order, a survivor remains in danger. So while legal protection is valuable, it does not mean safety precautions can be abandoned. Comprehensive safety planning remains absolutely vital for victims even when orders are in place.

Building a strong case for a protection order requires gathering thoroughly documented evidence of abuse, like police reports, medical records showing injuries, photo documentation, and statements from any witnesses. Lawyers and domestic violence victim advocates can provide tremendous help to abuse survivors in properly assembling all the paperwork needed to obtain court orders. The orders should aim to cover and protect not just the victim, but also any children and other family members at risk. Additional provisions can be requested as well, such as requirements for an abuser to submit to drug and alcohol testing.

Once orders are obtained, the survivor must be sure to keep a copy on his or her person at all times, and to proactively notify court security staff and officers about the existence and terms of the orders throughout any legal proceedings. However, again, the orders themselves do not guarantee actual safety. The risk to victims often remains extremely high in these situations even after court orders are issued. There is no room for complacency. Comprehensive safety planning and precautions must continue.

Attending Court Hearings Safely

Attending court requires a victim to be in close and extended proximity to the abuser, which inherently enables threats, harassment, confrontation and potentially violence by the abuser. Given this risk, abuse survivors need to carefully strategise and plan how to minimize dangers not just in the courtroom itself, but before, during, and after every court date.

Despite courts’ legal duty to protect survivors, the reality is that abusers often exploit information gained through hearings and records to further stalk, harass and threaten victims. Share on X

Ideally, the victim should be accompanied to court appearances by trusted friends or family members, or by domestic violence professionals. Taking public transportation or walking alone creates opportunities for the abuser to approach and have access to the victim. If the survivor must drive alone, varying routes and parking spots regularly is key to avoid stalking. Parking very close to courthouse entrances reduces the length of time spent outside and vulnerable.

It is advisable to keep a charged cell phone on hand at all times before and after the hearing, to allow quickly calling 999 or texting for help if needed. Hands-free devices can allow access to phones without tying up hands to carry them. Lawyers and domestic violence advocates may be able to help coordinate transportation plans and accompaniment on request.

Navigating the Courthouse Safely

Within courthouses, requesting access to secure, protected waiting areas separate from main public waiting areas can reduce opportunities for the abuser to have access to or physically approach the survivor. However, because such secured rooms may be limited, they need to be requested proactively as soon as possible. Without access to protected waiting areas, survivors should remain with companions in more general waiting areas. Arriving only shortly before hearings are scheduled reduces time left waiting.

When meeting with lawyers and victim advocates, abuse survivors should request the use of private conference and interview rooms, so conversations cannot be heard or intruded upon by the abuser in more public courthouse areas. Unfortunately some courthouses provide only open, common areas for any confidential discussions. If so, survivors need to proactively make arrangements for private rooms or offsite meetings well in advance of court dates.

Protecting Children from Further Abuse During Custody Cases

One of the greatest risks during custody cases is that the abuser may exploit hearings and orders to gain access to the children. This could enable further terrorizing not just the children themselves, but also the abuse survivor through the children. Establishing strong safety measures and protections for the children is critical throughout court proceedings.

Supervised contact centres for abusers continue to be used in many custody cases. Staff should ensure that abusive parents can only visit children under close supervision, with no opportunity for harassment or abuse, but they do not always meet this standard. Contact centres and their procedures must be urgently improved in order to properly protect survivors of domestic abuse and their children.

Simply being in close proximity with an abusive ex-partner in courtrooms and waiting areas can open the door for continued harassment, threats of violence, and potentially even actual violence. This remains true even when the… Share on X

Police stations, domestic violence shelters and government offices allow for neutral, protected transfer locations when children exchange custody between parents. Abusers and victims do not interact; the transfer happens entirely through third parties. Survivors may wish to inquire about such options in their area and specifically request court orders formalising safe drop-off and pick-up procedures.

Providing children’s schools and daycare facilities with photos of the abuser, along with custody order terms and emergency contact numbers, helps these facilities keep children more secure. Pick-up from schools can be limited to only pre-authorized adults.

Maintaining Confidentiality and Anonymity

Abusers often go to disturbing lengths to uncover the locations and daily patterns of domestic violence survivors, exploiting any details they can gather through the court system and proceedings. For this reason, maintaining absolute confidentiality and anonymity regarding current name, address, and any other identifying information is critically important for survivors during and after cases.

Domestic violence shelters and advocacy programs can provide assistance with safely relocating abuse survivors in ways that maintain confidential locations, using protections like unpublished mailing addresses not listed in any public or court documents. Survivors should avoid listing home addresses in court documents whenever possible, using post office boxes or lawyers’ addresses on record instead to obscure location.

Ongoing Safety Planning Outside of Court

Abusers may exploit knowledge gained through court proceedings and records to (re)offend by ambushing survivors at addresses or daily life locations mentioned during cases. Similarly, they may uncover new patterns and locations survivors frequent around court hearing dates. Comprehensive ongoing safety planning is essential both during and after cases to reduce risks in daily life.

Varying routines, routes and patterns used reduces vulnerability to stalking or ambushes. Abuse survivors should frequently change schedules, mix up routes taken to work or home, adjust work hours, and alter any regular activities done before or after court dates. This hides predictable patterns from abusers. It includes varying appointment times and locations when meeting with lawyers or counselors. Avoiding previously frequented businesses and locations altogether whenever possible after a case is another layer of protection.

Secure communication strategies are essential as well after cases, such as keeping phone numbers and email addresses fully confidential. Communication can be limited only to select “burner” phones or secured apps that can be easily discarded when needed. Video calls always risk inadvertently disclosing location details to abusers. Survivors should disable GPS location tracking and monitoring on all personal devices whenever safely possible. Using VPN services on phones and computers prevents revealing IP addresses that pinpoint home locations. Keeping devices locked down with passwords and other protections defends against hacking attempts to access information like messages, emails and photos.

Home security measures such as exterior cameras and video doorbell systems, alarm systems, exterior lighting around property perimeters, and secured entry points including window locks and jams can all effectively help detect and deter stalkers. Expanding survivor safety networks in local communities also supports ongoing protection. Informing neighbors about potential risks posed by an abuser, and providing photos or descriptions, means more eyes watching for suspicious vehicles or people. Carrying phones and personal safety alarms enables quick access and use if threats appear. Self-defense training can help build confidence to deal with confrontation or attacks if they occur. Ensuring close friends or family are always informed about current court hearing schedules means someone trustworthy is aware of planned whereabouts on potentially risky days.

Risks Can Be Mitigated With Careful Planning

Family court proceedings inherently increase dangers for domestic abuse survivors by bringing them into close proximity with former abusers who previously inflicted physical, psychological and emotional harm upon them and their children. Despite courts’ legal duty to protect survivors, the reality is that abusers often exploit information gained through hearings and records to further stalk, harass and threaten victims. Enhancing safety precautions, anticipating worst-case scenarios, and proactively limiting risks wherever possible allows those facing abuse to reduce these compounded dangers. With careful advance planning, support and precautions, the inherent risks of family court for abuse survivors can be mitigated.


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