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Beware Family Court:
What Victims and Advocates Should Know

Part 3 - Tips for Handling a
Family Court Case

The following section is not meant to be a guide for handling the specifics of your family court case. Rather it's a general set of tips for domestic violence victims and advocates for dealing with family court, in particular, on issues of restraining orders, custody decisions, and visitation orders.


Understand family court's limitations in dealing with domestic violence (as outlined in Part I).

Consider these limitations carefully before you decide to open a family court case. In particular, you should understand that unless you obtain a private attorney, you'll be responsible for the preparation of evidence and presentation of the case in court. You should also understand that the abuser will be given the opportunity to present counter accusations against you, and that if the abuser does present counter accusations, you'll also be responsible for preparing and presenting your defense against those accusations.

Be Aware! When you apply for a domestic violence restraining order, you are opening a family court case in which the abuser will be given ample opportunity to contest the restraining order, and to counter your declaration with his own accusations against you. For more specific tips on applying for a domestic violence restraining order in family court, see #13 at the end of this section.

NOTE: Even if you do hire a family law attorney, the family court limitations in dealing with domestic violence are essentially the same as if you don't hire an attorney - except that now you will have an attorney who will prepare and present the case. Nonetheless, if you do hire a family law attorney, it's crucial that you stay active in preparing and overseeing the case. In addition to being bound by the same limitations of family law as the court, family law attorneys are also notorious for ignoring the significance of family violence, and for disregarding or minimizing the violence in their handling of family law cases. Many women lose their life's savings by paying a family law attorney thousands of dollars, when, in the end, they could have handled the case on their own just as well, or better than, the family law attorney.


If there is a criminal case against the abuser, do everything you can to maximize the strength of the criminal case.

Make sure the police have all the evidence, and that the police report covers all the evidence. Make sure the DA files adequate charges, and pursues the case aggressively. Make sure your willingness to testify is known to the district attorney. And obtain a criminal court order. See Part II of this text, and use the many tools we've provided on this web site to help you make the criminal case strong. Strong criminal case documents against the abuser will help you in family court more than anything else.

If there isn't a criminal case against the abuser, consider opening one by making a report to police about the abuser's criminal acts of physical or sexual violence, threats of violence, stalking, or other domestic violence related crimes. Even if there's not enough evidence to result in a conviction, the fact that a police officer has documented the existing evidence, and named you as the victim in a crime report, can be very helpful to you; not just in family court, but in many other arenas as well.


Before each family court hearing, inform yourself as much as possible as to the purpose of the hearing, and the specific question before the court. Knowing the purpose of the hearing will guide your preparation.

Don't wait until the last minute to try to figure out what the next court date is all about. If you don't understand what's going to happen at the next court date, you need to call a victim advocate or the family court office to answer your questions. Only by knowing what the court is trying to decide, can you properly prepare. So ask, ask, ask, and do it as soon as possible.


Gather the relevant documents on the abuser's criminal record and status, in particular as it pertains to abuser's record of violence.

Your ability to convince the family court judge of the abuser's violence against you or against the children is an essential key to the judge ruling in your favor on restraining order, child custody, and visitation issues. The best way to convince the judge is to rely, as much as possible, on the criminal system records, instead of relying on your own statements. The family judge will always believe what the criminal justice system has already established over what either you or the abuser have to say. We keep repeating this. Because putting criminal justice system documentation of your abuser's violence and criminality in front of the family court is the key to your success in family court.

So, first, gather as much of the abuser's criminal case record as possible, and then write a brief, very brief (one or two paragraphs), summary of the abuser's criminal record and status.

Do not get discouraged by this task! Nor by what at first looks like a long list of things to gather up. It's usually very easy to gather up all this documentation with one trip to the court house and one trip to the police station.

So here's a list of the kind of criminal record information you should obtain, and the places where you can most easily obtain it.

A good place to start is by talking with a victim advocate who works in the district attorney's office. Victim advocates in the district attorney's office generally have access to the criminal justice system computer, and they may be able to provide you with much of what you need in a matter of minutes. At the very least, the advocate can direct you where to go.

Here's the information you should obtain in the form of official printouts:

  • All criminal charges currently pending against the abuser - especially those related in any way to his violence. (Print out of current charges against the abuser can be obtained from the local district attorney's office, unless there are charges for criminal acts in another county.)

  • The history of all criminal convictions and past criminal charges against the abuser (whether or not those past charges led to a conviction). Most important, of course, are the convictions and charges related to the abuser's violence, whether with you as the victim, or with other victims. A printout of this information can usually be obtained on request from the criminal court clerk's office. Don't worry if the abuser was charged with crimes, but not convicted. Even charges that were subsequently dismissed are likely to carry more weight in the family court than anything you can say. So, without question, yes, inform the family court judge of all criminal charges in the abuser's record.

    NOTE: Each county only keeps records on crimes committed in their own county. So if the perpetrator committed crimes in another county, the victim will have to get these records in the relevant county. One way to do this is to call a victim advocate in the DA's office in that other county. She may be willing to fax you the printout and save you a trip.

  • Police reports and arrest history of the abuser. In general, you won't have any difficulty getting copies of police reports in the situations where you were the victim of the crime. You can get these reports by going into the police department where the report was taken. However, you may have difficulty obtaining copies of police reports on crimes in which you were not the victim. Try to obtain them, anyway. Sometimes another women's report can provide just the evidence you need to fill in the evidence gaps of your own story.

    (Remember, in California, police are obligated under California Family Code 6228 to give domestic violence victims a complete copy of the police reports re her case on the victim's request. It's very important that victims have copies of these reports, not just for family court, but to buttress all aspects of her escape from domestic violence. Many other states have a similar law.)

    The ability to obtain police reports and arrest history on crimes in which the victim was not 'the victim' will vary from one police department to another.

  • The current custody status of the abuser, i.e. whether in jail, on parole or probation, or out on bail. If the abuser is on parole or probation, the victim should obtain a copy of the terms and conditions of that parole or probation. (The district attorney's office can quickly give you the custody status of the abuser over the phone. In order to obtain the terms of probation or parole, you'll probably have to call the county probation department or the state prison victim assistance office.)

  • A copy of your criminal court protective order, if you have this order. (This can be obtained from the district attorney's office, if you don't already have a copy. If there are current domestic violence charges against the abuser, and you don't have a criminal protective order, we strongly recommend that you get one. See Part Il


Prepare a concise summary of the abuser's
criminal record.

This summary should be done in a way that the judge can read it at a glance. Make multiple copies of this statement so you can give it to any mediators, evaluators, or new judges who may become involved in the case. This concise statement of the abuser's criminal record is also excellent to have on hand for occasions when you have to call the police, deal with the landlord, the children's teachers, and all the other places where the abuser may attempt to disrupt your peace and safety.

Sample criminal case Summary:

Re: Criminal Status of John Doe as of date

To the Family Court Judge,

John Doe is currently charged with one count of misdemeanor domestic violence, and one count of misdemeanor threats. There is a criminal court protective order in effect ordering John Doe to have no contact with me.

Over the past three years, police have written three domestic violence crime reports in which John was the suspect and I was the victim. The police report dates and crime report numbers are: ..................

In addition to the current charges, on Date y, the district attorney filed one charge of terrorist threats against John Doe on the crime report number x, but that case did not result in a conviction.

John has had two convictions for drunken driving on date 1 and date 2.

Thank you,
Signed, Jane Doe


Think ahead about how the abuser is going to respond in family court.

Trying to anticipate the abuser's response is something that you should think about before you open a family court case, and at every step in the family court case.

Do you think the abuser has enough respect for a court of law that he won't attempt to lie and make a false case against you? Do you think he'll deny the violence and abuse? Or do you think he will abuse the family court system in any way he can, including making up false accusations and false evidence to attack you? If you think he'll likely make up accusations against you, what will those accusations be?

Will he hire an attorney? Will he attempt to get custody of the children? Will he put a lot of effort into preparing a case against you?

It's worth spending time thinking about these things. Because, naturally, the better you can anticipate what the abuser will do, the better you can prepare to defeat his moves.


Gather and prepare your own evidence.

If there is no criminal justice system documentation of the abuser's violence or other criminality, and if you don't plan to go to police to report his violence, you'll have to prove the abuser's violence to the family court judge on your own. And even if you do have this documentation, it's still likely you'll want to add some additional evidence to your family court case. For example, suppose the district attorney has filed a domestic violence charge against your abuser. This may provide sufficient evidence that the abuser has been violent against you. But you may also want the family court to know that he is violent toward the children, too.

So think like a detective, gather up the evidence, and put it together in as concise a package as possible. Think back over the times your partner has used violence or threats of violence against you, or against the children. Give special consideration to the most recent incidents and to the most severe incidents. Then think of the kinds of evidence that might be available to support your claim that these events occurred.

Are there medical records of injuries? Photographs of injuries? Photographs of damage? Telephone message recordings? Phone records? Tape recordings? A pattern of missed days at work? etc.

Are there witnesses? Witnesses who actually saw or heard your partner's violence? Who saw the injuries on you? Witnesses you've told about the violence? Professionals to whom you went for help (clergy, counselors, advocates, women's shelters, etc.)? Ask your witnesses if they would be willing to write just a few paragraphs saying what they know. Have them date and sign the statement. Make multiple copies of all statements.

If child custody is the question before the court, and if your children are old enough, have your children write a statement as to their wishes and the reasons for those wishes. If they are fearful of their father, they should state why. As much as possible, have the children's words speak for themselves. Too often when a mother tells the family court that the children don't want to see their father, or are afraid of their father, this gets turned against the mother as proof that she is a "vindictive" woman who is using the children to hurt the father. So as much as possible, have the children put their feelings on paper in their own words.


Put your evidence together in as tight a package as possible, starting with the criminal status of the abuser and arrange things in descending order
of importance.

Always remember, Less is More! If you really want to take it up a notch, put a cover sheet that outlines the package:

Evidence for Jane Doe v. John Doe

Criminal Status of John Doe
Criminal System Printouts
Hospital Record of My Injuries
Three witness statements re John Doe's violence
Statements of our two children re custody wishes


Make multiple copies of this packet. Bring multiple copies to court with you. Keep multiple copies at your home.

As much as possible, and wherever possible, let the written packet do the talking for you. It doesn't matter how smart you are, or how educated you are, the emotional stress of confronting your abuser in court, in front of strangers, can easily throw you off balance, and make you forget the principal points you wanted to make.


Prepare an easy-to-read index card on which you've written the three or four main points you want to make to the judge.

Make a couple copies. Give one of the copies to the friend who's going to accompany you (see #11) to court. It's worth repeating. The emotional surges of confronting your abuser in court are usually so intense, it doesn't matter how articulate or how prepared you are. The emotions can easily unbalance you. Start thinking about the main points you want to make ahead of time. Make your index card in a way that you can read it at a glance. Hold it in your hand and refer to it as you talk to the judge. Make sure your friend has a copy in case you misplace yours.


If the abuser hires an attorney, you don't have to (and you should not) speak with that attorney, nor deal with his attorney in any way, unless the judge orders you to do so.

We strongly advise that you don't speak to your abuser's attorney under any circumstances, unless you are ordered by the judge to do so! There's only one most likely reason the abuser's attorney would want to question you, ask you to do something, or try to deal with you, and that is to gain an advantage for the abuser. It's never to try to help you!

Even though this is obvious, many women are so confused by the process or so emotionally upset, it's easy for the abuser's attorney to take advantage, and move in on the victim. Almost always, the abuser's attorney will be trying to sweet talk you into saying something, or agreeing to something, that will help the abuser. Remember, the only person you have to obey or respond to is the judge. So if the abuser's attorney comes over to you in or out of court, it's best to turn and walk away. And if you feel uncomfortable doing that, just tell the attorney that you'll cooperate with whatever the judge recommends. Don't get pushed around or tricked by your abuser's attorney. And if you even talk to him or her, it's almost certain you will get tricked.


Don't go to court alone!

Ask a friend to go with you! Ask someone with whom you feel comfortable and confident. Even if you have a victim advocate or an attorney, there is no one like a friend to help you feel centered. The more confidence you feel, and the more support you have around you, the more the abuser will be thrown off balance. A good friend at your side is gold.

Don't wait until the last minute to start thinking about whom you want to be with you in court. Start early. This gives you time to sit down and give your friend a good idea of why you need someone to be with you. It also gives you time to look for someone else if the first friend is unable to attend.

If at all possible, go together with your friend to the court, rather than meeting up with her at the court. You don't want to be standing alone in the court hallway anxiously waiting for someone while your abuser stands a few feet away intimidating you.

Feel free to photocopy and distribute this information as long as you keep the credit and text intact.
Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women's Justice Center,


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