Divorce Guide for Victims of Domestic Violence and Their Loved Ones

Domestic violence affects families of every
ethnicity, religion and socioeconomic status. It touches every neighborhood in
Dallas, from the inner city to Highland Park. For victims of domestic violence
– predominately women – pursuing a divorce can be challenging for many reasons.
Along with safety and financial concerns, many victims have a limited
understanding of the legal process and the resources available to support them
along the way.

The following guide, prepared in collaboration with Jan Langbein, CEO of Dallas-based Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support, offers insight for domestic violence victims to consider in order to address safety risks and get the legal help they need. We also provide tips for friends and loved ones who want to help.

NEED HELP NOW? Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224 or visit thehotline.org. Scroll to the bottom of this post for additional phone numbers and websites – for female and male victims of domestic violence – that provide help.

Safety first: From safety planning to staying
‘out of sight’

According to Jan, “More than 100 women in
Texas are killed each year due to intimate partner violence. What is startling
is that—even after multiple acts of violence—the vast majority of those victims
never reached out for help from the police, the court system, a shelter hotline
or other Dallas family violence services organizations. Organizations like ours
are here to stand by women and provide support – emotionally and financially –
during every step of the way.”

If you’re ready to leave an abusive partner,
it’s essential to plan ahead to minimize the safety risks for you and your
children. According to Jan, “When someone is leaving a domestic violence
relationship, that’s possibly the most dangerous time. A lot of people think,
‘If I get out, if I can run out, I will be safe,’ but we know that definitely
is not the case. Safety planning is a critical first step, and it’s going to
look different for every individual.”

A basic safety plan may include placing
money, clothes, a phone, extra car keys, medications, passports, I.D.s and
other important paperwork at a secure location outside the home. You will also
need a safe place to stay – friend, family member, shelter – where the abuser
will be unlikely to find you. Changing up your routine – where you shop,
workout, dine, drop off the kids, etc. – may also be a good idea.

Download a comprehensive safety plan from Genesis – for you OR a loved one – here.

It’s also important to stay off of social
media and disable location finders on all of your digital devices. The abuser
may recognize where you are simply by looking at a photo you post or could
track your whereabouts with smartphone features like “Find my iPhone” or
location services on an app. We’ve even had some clients find GPS tracking
devices on their vehicles. If you want to stay out of sight, be vigilant.

Learn more about digitally disconnecting during a divorce here: Don’t Let the Cloud Scuttle Your Divorce: 9 Essential Tips  

Be prepared: Know what to expect from the
abuser

One of the first topics domestic violence
counselors discuss with clients is what to expect from the abuser. At Genesis,
Jan and team want women to know what to expect emotionally, such as:

1). There will probably be an escalation in the abuser’s behavior. Abuse is all about power and control, and whether it’s verbal,
physical, or financial it’s likely to escalate if you choose to leave.

2). The abuser is not going to be fair. In fact, he’ll look for the one thing that matters to you the
most and take it away from you – whether that’s your children, your home or
your mother’s piano.

3). Your income will drop, and the abuser probably won’t move on. He may not pay you what he is ordered to pay. And even if the
divorce is granted and/or he ends up in another relationship, he may want to
drag you back into court. Whether that means a custody modification or appealing
the divorce, he may use the legal system to continue abusing you. This can all
cause a drain on financial resources and limit your ability to get legal
representation. When you have reached critical mass and begin to plan, be sure
to factor in what financial resources you can access to give you options down
the road.

More than a safe place to stay: How domestic
violence shelters and other organizations can help

As Jan explains, “Whether we are providing
legal services or they are being provided somewhere else, we’re able to walk
beside her emotionally, which is a benefit that places like Genesis can offer.”

At Connatser Family Law, we often refer
clients to local resources like Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support, which offer
women and their children more than a safe place to stay. They also provide
counseling, education and support, as well as insight on the access to civil
legal representation through Genesis’ lawyers or through family law firms like
ours.

Genesis and other organizations that assist
victims of domestic violence can provide one-on-one and group counseling for
victims of abuse and their children. They teach clients how to cope with the
trauma of abuse and prepare for the future both emotionally and financially.

Young victims of family violence need special counseling and care. Learn more here: Little Victims Face Big Horrors Due to Family Violence 

Access to legal representation during divorce:
Know your options

While Connatser Family Law frequently
represents victims of domestic violence, we know that some people can’t afford
to hire an attorney to represent them in a divorce or child custody case.

Legal Aid may be an option for some victims of domestic violence, however, many people don’t qualify for assistance, because they earn too much money. According to Jan, organizations like Genesis can help the people who fall through the cracks financially.

As she explains, “It’s the mission of Legal Aid
to serve the indigent, so a nurse, social worker or teacher typically won’t
qualify for representation. At the same time, many people can’t afford a
private attorney. That’s one of the places that Genesis can help. We have a
legal clinic onsite to address those civil legal needs. We don’t handle
criminal cases, but we do handle child custody and divorces and can do so
absolutely free. That support allows a woman to save income and build her
savings so she and her children can move toward a financially sound future.”

Get more safety tips from the CFL team here: 5 Ways to Stay Safe During a High Conflict Divorce 

The last person to turn to for legal advice:
The abuser

While that may sound logical, Jan and the
legal team at Genesis recently helped a woman, “Melanie,”* regain custody of
her children after the abuser claimed he had a restraining order to kick her
out of the house. He lied.

According to Jan, “One day during a big
fight, the abuser screamed at Melanie and told her he had a restraining order,
and if she didn’t leave the house, she’d lose her kids, and if she came around
the house, she’d be arrested. She had no idea what the restraining order
involved. Lack of understanding of the legal process prevented her from calling
him a liar, since the only legal advice she was getting was from her abuser.”

Melanie left the home because she thought it
was the best thing for her children. For the next seven months, she didn’t see
her kids. While she was gone, the abuser was telling the kids, “Your mother ran
away and doesn’t want to see you.” Fortunately, Melanie found her way to
Genesis.

“Melanie came to us devastated and broken-hearted.
She told us her story, and we were able to explain that what the abuser was
telling her was all a lie. We found out there was no kick out order, and we
were able to go to court, where Melanie reclaimed her children and got sole
custody of the kids,” explains Jan.

The moral of the story here is that you need
to independently verify whether any legal actions or orders pertaining to you,
your abuser and your children exist. Your family law attorney or legal
resources through organizations like Genesis can help you find out.

How to protect yourself: Restraining orders
and protective orders

Your attorney can guide you in steps that may
help protect you and your children from an abuser. One option is a temporary
restraining order that limits the abuser’s access to you, your children and
your home. A protective order in Texas may restrict the abuser’s contact with
you even further.

According to the Texas Family Code, you (and your children) can request a
protective order against an abuser if an act by the abuser was intended to
result in physical harm, bodily injury or sexual assault, or there is a threat
that reasonably places you (or your kids) in fear of imminent physical harm,
bodily injury or sexual assault.

Initial emergency protective orders remain valid
for 20 days then expire by operation of law. Before those 20 days expire, there
will be a hearing where a judge listens to evidence, and the accused abuser has
the right to challenge you and provide evidence to the court denying or refuting
the allegations.

If the judge finds that family violence has
occurred and that family violence is likely to occur in the future, he or she
can issue a protective order that prohibits the abuser from having any contact
whatsoever with the victim and any other member of her household for two years.
The abuser may also be ordered to relinquish any firearms in his or her
possession.

Keep in mind: Even if you have a restraining
order or protective order against your abuser, the abuser may choose to
disregard it. It’s important to remain vigilant if you feel you or other
members of your family are in danger. The Genesis safety plan mentioned above
offers great insight.

You can also ask your local police department
to increase patrols in your area. They will need to see the original restraining
or protective order and get a description of the abuser, any vehicles the
abuser owns and license plate numbers. Another practical step is to notify your
local neighborhood crime watch, and make sure to park inside a garage or
well-lit driveway or street if available. Adding video cameras to your
driveway, carport and front door, such as Nest cameras and a Nest Hello
doorbell, can help give you an early warning or all-clear when it is safe to
leave or approach your home. 

Friends and family members can help too:
Here’s how

Friends, neighbors and loved ones are often the first line of defense for victims of domestic violence, yet they often don’t know how to help. You can learn more about domestic abuse and download “5 Ways to Help a Friend” from the Genesis website. Here’s a quick snapshot:

5 Ways to Help a Friend

1). Believe her.

2). Don’t blame her.

3). Help her think about safety planning.

4). Refer her to Genesis or a similar
resource in your community.

5). Continue to provide support.

Reach out for help: Local and national
resources for victims of domestic violence

The first step victims of domestic violence can
take to get safe is to reach out for help. Many resources are available here in
Dallas and nationwide. A number of organizations and shelters are available 24/7 to listen and provide
guidance, such as:

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH). Women and men can call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or TTY 1-800-787-3224 or visit the NDVH website at thehotline.org.
  • National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline. Female and male teens can call 1-866-331-9474 or TTY 1-866-331-8453 or visit loveisrespect.org.
  • Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support in Dallas. Women can call 214-946-4357 or visit genesisshelter.org.
  • The Family Place in Dallas. Women can call 214-941-1991 or visit familyplace.org.

* Client’s name changed to protect her
identity.

Photo Source: Adobe Stock