to Help Index
Back to Family Court Index
What Victims and Advocates Should Know
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.
family court's limitations in dealing with domestic violence (as
outlined in Part I).
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.
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.
there is a criminal case against the abuser, do everything you
can to maximize the strength of the criminal case.
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.
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
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.
the relevant documents on the abuser's criminal record and status,
in particular as it pertains to abuser's record of violence.
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.
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.
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.)
to obtain police reports and arrest history on crimes in which
the victim was not 'the victim' will vary from one police department
- 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
a concise summary of the abuser's
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.
Re: Criminal Status of John Doe as of date
To the Family Court
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.
Signed, Jane Doe
ahead about how the abuser is going to respond in family court.
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.
and prepare your own evidence.
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
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.
your evidence together in as tight a package as possible, starting
with the criminal status of the abuser and arrange things in descending
Less is More! If you really want to take it up a notch, put a cover
sheet that outlines the package:
for Jane Doe v. John Doe
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
multiple copies of this packet. Bring multiple copies to court
with you. Keep multiple copies at your home.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.