When a survivor of domestic violence is considering or undergoing a divorce, safety planning is a critical measure. Safety planning is simply implementing a strategy to maximize safety in an abusive relationship. For example, you might want to avoid the kitchen during a heated argument because of the potential weapons he could use against you. Safety planning is most often discussed in the context of preparing to leave an abusive relationship.
Often, clients are under the impression that the courts will not consider evidence of domestic violence if the client has never called the police or if the abuser was never arrested. This is simply not true; because domestic violence often happens behind closed doors and in secret, the case will often become an issue of “he said/she said.” However, having any additional evidence of the violence will help to facilitate a successful outcome in family court. Especially when preparing to leave an abusive relationship, there are specific actions that can be taken to help increase your level of safety.
Beginning a family court proceeding if you are still living under the same roof can be very dangerous. Even if your partner seems to be in agreement with the separation, violence can often escalate once official proceedings begin. If you need to temporarily leave the home while your partner is served, begin making arrangements to do so. You will have the opportunity to establish temporary orders after the case is begun to regain access to your home should you desire.
If you can safely document your partner’s abusive behavior, do it. Take pictures of injuries and broken items, and record and save abusive calls and texts. If you can find a way to “back up” these pieces of evidence or send them to a friend for safekeeping, that is best. Often clients are forced or convinced to delete evidence by an abusive partner. Additionally, if there are police reports of a documented incident, work on gathering those reports.
Find a trusted friend, coworker or family member and let them know what’s going on. Devise a code word or sign (such as turning on a particular light) to use with your children, family, friends and/or neighbors when you need them to call 911.
Try to begin counseling for both you and your children, if you can do so safely. This helps you and your children to process the trauma of what’s occurring and prepare for what’s to come. Additionally, it is one of the limited exceptions to “child hearsay,” meaning a child’s counselor’s testimony will likely be allowed to heard by the court.
Know your Rights
If you and the parent of your children live in the State of Texas and you have no current custody orders in place, you cannot “kidnap” your own children. The parent in possession is entitled to possession. Possession is the term Texas uses for physical custody of a child. This means that if your partner has possession of the children, you can’t remove the children from your partner without a court order and vice versa. Keep this in mind when agreeing to allow the children to see the abusive parent before you have orders in place, as they have no obligation to return the children. This is why it’s so important to make a safety plan that includes bringing your children with you when you leave. If you are from another state or have current custody orders in place, reach out to an attorney so that you can ensure you are not in violation of your order or a state law by keeping your children away from the other parent.
To learn more about safety planning, visit www.genesisshelter.org/education/safety-planning/.
Written by Sara Barnett, director of legal services at Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support