Leaving an abusive partner is often not the last time a survivor is going to see him or her. When there are criminal charges being filed, an order of protection to be secured, a marriage that must be dissolved, assets to be divided or child custody that has to be decided on, facing one’s abuser in court is a likely scenario.
It’s normal for this to cause fear and anxiety in a survivor. Abusers have been known to use the court system as another way to exert power and control over their victims—through manipulation, threats, intimidation or simply out-lawyering their ex-partners with a pricey attorney.
That’s why it’s important to be prepared. Creating a safety plan for after you leave your abuser is as instrumental as creating one for the moment you first walk out the door. Below, 6 steps to consider if a court date with your abuser is approaching.
1. Visit the Courthouse Ahead of Time. You’ll feel more confident if you know where you’re going—where the courthouse is located, what room you’re headed to inside. Scope out parking—is there a place to park where you won’t be isolated and possibly confronted by your abuser without people nearby? You may also consider borrowing someone else’s car that your abuser cannot identify. If you’re concerned for your safety, can someone come with you to your court date? If a friend or family member is not available, a local domestic violence advocate should be able to accompany you. You can also contact local law enforcement and ask if there is someone stationed at the courthouse who can provide an escort for you to and from your car on the date.
2. Leave Children at Home. If possible, leave children at home or with a trusted support person. Seeing your abuser can put you and your children at risk emotionally and physically, and can be a stressful environment for your children.
3. Try to Arrive Before the Abuser. To avoid running into your abuser the day-of in the parking lot or lobby, try to arrive well ahead of time. Allotting extra time is also important in case of traffic delays or a potential line to get into the courthouse (if there are metal detectors)—if you are late to arrive in court, your case may be dismissed.
4. Stay With the Person You Came With. Inside the courthouse, make sure to not separate yourself from the person you came with to lessen the chances your abuser can isolate you and try to intimidate you. If you have to use a public bathroom, ask the person who came with you to accompany you.
5. Don’t Speak to the Abuser. Even if you think it’s safe, stay away from your abuser. He or she may try to coerce you into changing your testimony. Ask the bailiff or courthouse security to keep your abuser away from you. Let them know if you have a restraining order—it still applies in the courthouse.
6. Let the Abuser Leave First. At the end of the hearing, let your abuser leave first so he or she can’t follow you. Wait a good amount of time before leaving, and then leave through a different door than the main exit. If you feel unsafe, ask a police officer or sheriff to walk you to your car. If you feel more comfortable leaving first, you can also request your abuser be held in the courtroom for 10 minutes or so while you exit. In rural areas, it may be more difficult to avoid your abuser, which is why it’s vital to ask for an escort to your car. If your abuser seemed angry in court, it may also be a good idea to stay with a friend or relative that he or she does not know until you feel safe to return home, or arrange to spend the night in a domestic violence shelter, if possible.