How can I support women to be as safe as possible after their family law case is over?
The family court process can be long and difficult. By the time it is over, many women are often exhausted and sick and tired of dealing with their former partner. Many also assume the battle is over; that the court order will keep them and their kids safe and that their ex will move on from harassing and threatening them.
Unfortunately, abusive former partners often feel differently. Many are not yet ready to give up their power and control. Especially if the court outcome has not been entirely to an abuser’s liking, he may decide he needs to get back at his former partner.
We know that domestic violence homicide remains a risk for several months and even longer after separation so, just as many women are ready to wind down their vigilance, they need to continue to monitor risks and plan for safety.
Every woman’s plans for doing this will be different and dependent on her own situation. If a woman does not have children, it may be somewhat easier for her to limit contact and communication with her former partner. For example, she can move and change her telephone number without the consent of her ex and without letting him know.
A woman with children will almost always have to have contact with her former partner, so the challenge is to find ways to build a relationship with him that is as emotionally and physically safe as possible.
Prevention is best
The best way for a woman and her children to be safe after the family law case is over is to have a strong court order that sets out clearly what contact is permitted, how communication about the children is to take place, what the living and decision-making responsibilities related to the children are and how conflict and disagreement are to be handled. Ideally, the order will include a police-enforcement clause.
You can assist your clients to identify safety concerns and put measures in place to address them. A woman may need to:
- change the locks and/or install special security on her home
- organize a secure parking spot at work
- let work colleagues know what is going on
- be careful with her use of social media
- set clear communication boundaries with her ex
- manage access exchanges carefully
A woman may find it helpful to keep a journal for the first several months after her court case is over. She can note any problems she has with her ex-partner and what she did to handle them, including any calls to the police or returns to court.
By keeping track of her ex-partner’s actions towards her, she can identify any patterns in his behaviour. Her record will also be helpful evidence to the police and/or family court if the situation escalates. The woman should keep her notes in a secure place so her kids won’t stumble on it and her former partner won’t be able to find it.
Even though court is over, a woman may still need a safety plan. Lots of information on safety plan is available on our Family Court and Beyond website.
Establishing a new kind of relationship with her ex-partner is important for a woman’s emotional health. You can support your client to understand that, while she has to continue to engage with her ex, he is no longer her partner. She does not owe him detailed information about her life, her friends and her activities. She does not have to be his friend. She does not have to meet his needs any more.
They are now business partners, engaged in the business of raising their children as well as they can. The relationship needs to have boundaries and limitations if the woman is to feel emotionally safe and be able to move ahead with her life.
You can encourage your clients to get or continue professional help after their court case is over. A professional counsellor or therapist can assist women find a path to feeling emotionally safe.
Especially when there are children, a woman will have to communicate with her former partner. The younger the kids, the more communication will be required, but even when children become young adults there will be times in their lives (graduation, marriage, serious illness or injury) when the two parents may need to communicate with one another.
While a woman cannot control how her former partner communicates with her, she can ensure her style of communication does not increase any safety risks.
Electronic communication poses particular challenges and requires specific strategies to ensure safety: see our section on technology abuse on Family Court and Beyond.
Helping children stay safe once the legal issues are resolved is challenging because appearing to interfere in their relationship with their father can lead to serious legal difficulties. Mothers are required to support and encourage children’s relationships with their father.
You can help women understand that they need to find ways to ask their kids questions about what happens when they are with their dad in a positive and non-intrusive way while also paying attention to answers that may indicate there is a concern for their safety or well-being.
An ongoing safety plan for the children is a good idea. Where the concerns are serious, the woman needs to be prepared to let her lawyer know and, possible, report what she knows to the CAS.
A good custody and access order is the best way to keep access and exchanges of children as safe as possible. You can encourage your clients to keep track of any problems that arise in their journal.
Enforcing court orders safely
If a woman’s court order includes a police enforcement clause, the safest way to deal with a serious breach of the order (for example, the children’s father does not return them at the specified time) is to call the police.
To encourage efficient enforcement, it is very helpful if the woman has a certified copy of the court order to share with the police.
It is also important for a woman to let her lawyer know when her former partner has breached the order, so they can keep a record, too.
Meeting someone new
Starting a relationship with someone new can be exciting but also worrisome after a past abusive relationship. This is especially true if a woman’s abusive ex-partner is still involved in her life on some level.
You can encourage women who are entering a new relationship to:
- update their safety plan
- be cautious about telling the children, because they will almost always tell the father
- be careful in sharing the news on social media or with any but the closest of friends
- make a plan for how and when they will tell their ex
- be clear with the new person in their lives what role they are to play (and not play) with the children and the ex-partner