After you have left an abusive relationship, there may be many occasions where you will have to see the abuser in court to deal with a protection order, custody, child support, divorce, or criminal proceedings. Since you are in a courthouse surrounded by people and even court officers, you may feel like it is okay to let your guard down. However, please remember that any time you come into contact with the abuser, you have to take steps to protect yourself. Here are some tips to help keep you as safe as possible.
Following these suggestions (often known as a safety plan) can't guarantee your safety, but it could help make you safer. However, it is important that you create a safety plan that is right for you. Not all of these suggestions will work for everyone, and some could even place you in greater danger. You have to do what you think is best to keep yourself and your children safe.
Getting to the courthouse
- Try to get to court at a different time than you think the abuser will arrive to avoid seeing him/her on the street or in line to enter the court. If the abuser is always late, try arriving early. If the abuser always arrives early, try arriving closer to your hearing time or come with a friend. Remember: make sure to leave plenty of time to get through the lines, metal detectors, etc., so that you get to the hearing on time. If you are late, the case may be called without you and dismissed. Finding a domestic violence advocate to go with you can really help with safety. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) to find help near you. You can also find a list of domestic violence organizations in your area in our Advocates and Shelters page.
- See if your police department or sheriff's department will take you to the courthouse. Meet them somewhere other than the courthouse and then ask the officer to walk you inside. Have the officer wait with you until you find the bailiff or courthouse security and let them know your situation. Try to sit near the court officers or security guards if you can.
- Bring a friend or family member with you so you won’t have to be alone at all during the day.
- If your friend or family member cannot spend the day in court with you, ask that person to drive you to court. It's best to get someone whose car the abuser doesn't know. Ask him/her to drop you off at the courthouse entrance so you don't have to walk alone through the parking lot.
Once you're inside the courthouse
- Stay together with whoever came with you while inside the courthouse. Ask your friend/family member to keep an eye on the surroundings and pay attention to safety considerations. If you need to use the bathroom and it has a lot of stalls, ask your friend/family member to come into the bathroom with you. If your friend/family member is unable to come into the bathroom with you, ask him/her to wait outside the bathroom for you.
- Find someone who knows the courthouse well, like a domestic violence advocate or someone who works at the courthouse. Ask them about safe places you can sit where you will be close to courthouse security but where you will still hear your name called when they call your case. Ask them where all the exits are, in case you have to leave in a hurry. Besides the main exit, there may be exits through the courtrooms, side exits, or fire exits that you could use in an emergency.
- Ask the bailiff or courthouse security to keep the abuser away from you. Let the bailiff or courthouse security know if the abuser sits near you or tries to harass you. If you have a restraining order, remember that the order is still in effect while you are in the courthouse. If the abuser violates the order while in the waiting room or in line at the courthouse entrance, you can report it to a court officer or call the police.
Leaving the courthouse
- At the end of your hearing, ask the judge or the court officer/bailiff to "detain" the abuser. In other words, to hold him/her until you can leave.
- If the judge or court officer won’t detain the abuser, think about letting the abuser leave the courthouse first, then wait a long time before leaving and try to leave out of a different exit than the main exit. However, even if you wait a long time, be aware that the abuser could still be out there waiting for you so be observant.
- Have a police officer or sheriff walk out of the courthouse with you and walk you to your car if possible.
- Have a friend pick you up at the exit or if you had a friend/family member come with you, make sure that s/he walks to your car with you.