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.