Domestic violence is one of those crimes that can be tricky to prove. When there’s no obvious proof, such as in many cases of psychological and verbal abuse, stalking or coercive control, a survivor can feel helpless to stop it, afraid no one will believe them if they speak out. And, they may be right.
Advocates will attest that abusers are cunning individuals who relish being in control. They can manipulate friends and family members around them to believe the abuse is only a figment of the survivor’s irrational imagination.
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This may explain why some survivors decide to call in reinforcements in the form of private investigators. Contrary to popular belief, private investigators are not only found in old-time detective movies and in salacious TV shows aimed at catching unfaithful spouses. There are actually some 60,000 active private investigators in the U.S. and the field is growing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Pro Bono Help for Survivors
The main demographic for private investigators has historically been corporations, who utilize their services to help protect confidential information, though there is also a fair amount of spouses who are trying to see if their partner is cheating. But in cases of stalking and domestic violence, private investigators can almost act like a personal bodyguard, helping a survivor discover if their abuser is stalking them after they’ve left, locating their abuser, and even helping spot potential abusers in the future by running background checks.
The downfall is that employing these services isn’t cheap—a retainer, starting at $1,000, is usually needed just as a down payment and hourly rates can range from $40 to $100. Then there’s the investigator’s mileage to account for, as well as travel expenses like hotel and plane tickets that will need to be reimbursed if the case goes out of the area.
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Becky’s Fund is a domestic violence advocacy and awareness nonprofit based out of D.C. They refer survivor participants who believe they could benefit from a private investigator’s services to Trustify, a private investigator start-up that connects clients with investigators across the country. Trustify then provides these services pro bono on a case-by-case basis.
“The legal process is very traumatic for survivors. Getting ‘dirt’ on the abuser … can help bolster the survivor’s case both in court and could also help her not go to court,” says Becky’s Fund executive director Becky Lee. That dirt, she says, might be background checks that could hurt an abuser’s security clearance at work, or could be along the lines of finding out the abuser has an unregistered firearm.
“Within the cycle of abuse, information is power,” says Lee.
What a P.I. Can Do For Survivors
Matt De Leon is the vice president of investigations for Trustify. He says private investigators, generally, can help survivors in three main ways:
- Detect stalking. “We help survivors avoid being digitally tracked and otherwise stalked by their attackers,” says De Leon. They look for things like GPS devices on survivors’ cars, illegal spyware on their phones and evidence that an abuser is stalking a survivor online.
- Gather evidence. De Leon says private investigators can gather evidence for court on behalf of a survivor for the purposes of enforcing restraining orders, prosecuting domestic violence, or for use in custody cases. Here are 23 examples of evidence one could collect. De Leon confirmed that evidence gathered legally by a private investigator can be used as evidence in court.
- Background checks. “Trustify can do background checks on attackers to determine levels of risk and to help survivors develop a strategy to avoid their attacker.
“Investigators can also give survivors advice on how to change their routines to avoid being found by their attacker,” says De Leon. As people trained to blend in, private investigators can be helpful resources in training survivors how to disappear.
California-based Private Detective William Holland told the Los Angeles Times, "We have to play devil's advocate. For example, as a P. I., I know what it takes to find you. And if I can find you, then some other hired tracker can find you. These women have to go through a major, major identity change."
What if an Abuser Hires a P.I.?
The obvious conundrum here is what if these services are used in reverse? Could an abuser use private investigators just as easily as survivors, but for ominous reasons?
“Ethics are critical in the private investigation industry and the reality is that, sometimes, this involves protecting the subject of an investigation from the client,” says De Leon. To protect clients and subjects, Trustify says investigators must ask clients why they are searching for someone, and clients must give a good reason. Investigators will also look into the client and search for any restraining orders, past altercations between the client and the subject or anything else suspicious.
“If they find any red flags or feel uncomfortable with the investigation, they [the private investigator] can reject the case and Trustify will stand behind their decision,” says De Leon.
What if an Abuser Finds Out?
There are obvious risks to hiring a private investigator, one of them being that it could put the survivor in more danger should the abuser find out. But according to De Leon, a highly trained private investigator should be undetectable.
“A skilled, ethical investigator would not be detectable by an attacker and should therefore not place a survivor at greater risk.” He adds that clearly, the best way to utilize a private investigator is to keep this fact a secret from anyone. You should also carefully vet an investigator to make sure they are licensed, skilled, and ethical. (De Leon adds that Trustify takes care of this for clients using a 5-point vetting process that accepts less than 8% of applicants.)
“We understand that investigators work in situations where people's lives are at risk and we vet investigators accordingly,” he says.
Is a P.I. For You?
To learn more about accessing Trustify’s pro bono services, reach out to Becky's Fund directly, who will then contact Trustify on a survivor’s behalf.
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