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This article was originally published in 2015. It was updated in 2023.
Keeping a record of domestic violence–both physical and non-physical–might feel like the last thing you’d want to do. It’s hard to remember or re-experience the trauma of domestic abuse, but documentation of abuse can serve as a crucial tool if you decide to file criminal or civil charges, get divorced or to secure custody of your children.
According to WomensLaw.org, each state has its own laws about what evidence is permissible in court. It’s best to talk to an attorney or legal advocate prior to your court hearing to learn more about your state’s laws. If you need to find a domestic abuse attorney, check out our information on Legal Help for Domestic Violence Issues. You may even be able to find free or low-cost legal aid.
Why is it Important to Document Abuse?
“Many survivors of domestic violence face disbelieving judges who are quick to accept the abuser’s efforts to explain away the violent incidents or behavior. Some abusers even claim that the violence did not happen at all and that the survivor is making up allegations to try to get an advantage in court, says WomensLaw.org says. “Others will claim that the victim is actually the abusive partner and that any injuries to the victim were from self-defense. It is important to anticipate these tactics and have evidence ready that you can show the judge to prove your version of the events and to get the judge to rule in your favor.”
Documentation works as evidence to fight against claims the abuser may make about their abusive actions or you. Documentation corroborates your version of events, which makes it potentially easier to prove your case. This can help you achieve divorce, keep custody of your children, see the abuser go to prison or even secure financial compensation.
Staying Safe Documenting Abuse
Recording abusive incidents can be incredibly helpful in court, but it could also put you at risk of harm if the abuser discovers you’re recording. The abuser could also access the recording to destroy it. Narrah Patton, a domestic violence advocate with Safe Austin, suggests that survivors call a trusted friend or family member when an incident is escalating. “That person may record and store it on their own phone, to which the abuser does not have access,” she noted.
It’s also crucial to understand the consent laws where you’re located and where any recording takes place. Sheri Kurdakul, Founder and CEO of VictimsVoice, cautions, “Many states are ‘all-party consent states,’ which makes it illegal to record (audio or video) without expressed consent from all parties being recorded. A few states make it a felony to record and distributing/sharing or receiving the recording is also a felony.”
Similarly, any other documentation of abuse should be kept in a safe place where the abuser can’t find it. Keeping it at home or even in your car provides easy access to abusers, who often keep close tabs on your personal belongings as well as comings-and-goings.
Giugi Carminati, JD, attorney, activist and author of the blog Argue Like a Girl, told us she recommends victims send documentation to their attorney. “I ask my clients to send me the evidence, right away, as they get it. They can also drop off at my office. What most matters is to get it out from where the abuser may be able to get access to it,” she said.
If you don’t have a lawyer, see if a trusted friend, family member, coworker or domestic violence advocate can store the documentation safely for you. Find a domestic violence advocate near you with our Get Help tool. You could also store your documentation at work or in a safe deposit box.
Consider that the abuser may have installed spyware on your devices–like your phone, laptop or tablet. Spyware is hidden software that allows a bad actor to do things like track your location, see what you’re emailing or access your files. Learn how to spot spyware on your phone. Keep in mind that in some states, spyware constitutes stalking, so finding spyware on your devices can itself act as evidence.
Other ways to keep you safer and your devices more secure when documenting abuse include:
- Lock your home screens.
- Don’t use a password the abuser can easily guess or already knows, like a pet’s name or birthday. Aura, creator of intelligent safety programs, shares that the most secure passwords aren’t just a word but “passphrases” made of multiple words. Also use multiple digits, a mix of upper and lower case letters and special characters such as @, # and %.
- Change your passwords every one to two weeks across all of your devices and email.
- Don’t use email programs that pop up automatically on your computer screen and turn off push notifications for email on your phone or tablet.
The most important thing to remember is your own safety. If your gut tells you it isn’t safe to document abuse or you can’t find a secure way to store your documentation away from the abuser, hold off on documenting for now.
What Abuse Should I Document?
Physical abuse isn’t the only type of abuse to document–be sure to include incidents of verbal abuse, stalking, financial abuse, reproductive abuse or coercion, spiritual abuse and sexual abuse or assault.
In short, it’s better to have more documentation than less documentation. The more abuse you can record, the more potential evidence you have to prove your case to police and in civil, family or criminal court, depending on what legal methods you choose or need to pursue. A lawyer can help you go through your documentation.
Here are some suggestions of what you should document when it comes to experiencing domestic violence.
Verbal Accounts of Abuse
If there were witnesses to the abuse, ask them to write or record their recollections. If you feel like you can trust the witness not to speak to the person abusing you, ask the witness if they would testify on your behalf in court. However, if you don’t feel like you can trust the witness, and you’re not safely separated from the abuser, you have the option of subpoenaing a witness, which will legally obligate them to appear in court. Learn more from WomensLaw.org about how to subpoena a witness.
Heather Debreceni, a former deputy sheriff turned professional divorce coach who is also a survivor of domestic violence, told DomesticShelters.org that a victim can also reach out to a therapist that specializes in domestic abuse. “They will help you, as a third party perspective, to tell your story. Even if you can get an advocate from a domestic violence shelter, or go to group counseling—see if they’ll testify on your behalf.”
It’s important to note that the most useful witnesses are those who have seen the abuse firsthand. These are called “bystander witnesses.” Witnesses you’ve talked to about abuse who aren’t experts may potentially be considered “hearsay witnesses.” A lawyer can help you figure out who should testify on your behalf, if you aren’t sure.
Medical Reports of Injuries From Abuse
Ask your doctor about safe ways medical staff can make notes about any abuse you’re experiencing, advises The National Domestic Violence Hotline. For example, some doctors or nurses can write “cause of injury” on your medical records without the report having to go to the police.
American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics outlines various ways in which medical professionals can help victims of domestic violence. One of the ways is “Discuss any suspicion of abuse sensitively with the patient, whether or not reporting is legally mandated, and direct the patient to appropriate community resources.” It’s important to understand who and what a mandated reporter is. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak to someone who is a mandatory reporter–it just means you need to know if disclosing that you’re being abused will create the need for a mandatory police report and how that might impact your safety. Who is a mandated reporter and what needs to be reported varies from state to state, but your medical team will be able to answer your questions. You can check who is a mandated domestic violence reporter with MandatedReporter.com’s state search.
Photos of Evidence of Abuse
Photographic evidence carries a lot of weight. It’s visual proof of what you’ve experienced and in this case, the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” can be very accurate. Make sure to note the date when the photo was taken and cross-reference the photo with any other evidence like your written account or witness statements.
Here are some important things to photograph to document what the abuser has done:
- Any injuries you’ve sustained from abuse like bruises or blackeyes
- Weapons used by the abuser to threaten or harm you
- Objects damaged or broken by the abuser during abuse incidents
- Your home in disarray due to episodes of violence
Obviously, not all incidents of domestic violence are reported to the police, but when they are, they can be used as further evidence of abuse. If you or any witnesses called the police, and they responded, a police report should have been generated.
Not all police reports are available to the general public, since releasing information could jeopardize ongoing investigations or the safety of parties involved. However, what is and isn’t available varies by jurisdiction. To get a copy of a police report, you’ll first need to know what jurisdiction the incident took place in–writing down the responding officers’ information at the time of the incident can help you here.
Next, check that jurisdiction’s website for their protocol for requesting and receiving any records you can access. If you can’t find anything on the police department’s website, try looking on the city or county website. You can also call your local police department’s non-emergency number and ask about how to file or receive a police report. If you’re not comfortable disclosing abuse to the police, you can frame your questions hypothetically, using something like a stolen car as an example.
Diary, Journal or Log of Abuse
Keeping some kind of journal or log of every incident of abuse is a lot of work, but it can be a powerful wealth of evidence when brought to court. The information you’ll want to document includes:
- Date of incident
- Time of incident
- Location of incident
- Approximate length of the incident
- Name of abuser
- Description of Incident
- What the abuser did
- What the abuser said
- How you felt as a result (scared, unsafe, threatened, traumatized, hurt, etc)
- Police officer information if the police were involved
- Note supporting evidence like your pictures, medical records or a police case number
Keep your documentation to relevant information only. It’s good to remember that anything you document can be used as evidence in court, which also makes it available to the abuser.
It’s okay if you don’t remember everything exactly. Many victims and survivors of domestic violence have a hard time remembering details; trauma often affects the memory. Physical violence from strangulation and traumatic brain injury as well as mental health issues stemming from abuse like PTSD or depression can all affect the memory, too. Record as much as you can remember–if you can’t remember an exact date, try to remember what time of year the incident happened or if it was around a holiday or other event.
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Digital Evidence of Abuse
Abuse doesn’t just happen in person, especially in today’s digitally connected world. Phone calls, emails, text messages, chats and social media posts can all be used by abusers to exert control and instill fear into victims. It’s useful to document any abuse that happens digitally along with the rest of your documentation.
Take screenshots and/or print out abusive messages sent through email, text or social media. Let harassing or threatening calls go to voicemail, then save that voicemail securely. If the abuser is calling you repeatedly, take screenshots of those 30 missed calls in a row.
Certain digital footprints can be changed or deleted rapidly, like social media posts or Snapchats. Do your best to collect evidence through saving texts or taking screenshots when abuse occurs. Note that some texting programs now include a feature to unsend or edit text messages (such as Apple texting, where this feature was introduced in an iOS 16 update). Also note that some programs, like Snapchat, may notify the sender when screenshots are taken, so either be aware if a notification will be sent or try taking a picture of your screen with another camera device instead of a screenshot. Learn more about gathering digital evidence with How to Gather Technology Abuse Evidence for Court from the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
Tools To Help Document Abuse
There are many digital tools available to help you document domestic violence.
VictimsVoice is a progressive web application, which means you don’t have to download an app to use it, avoiding a digital footprint. VictimsVoice helps you to document abuse and even walks you through what to record with prompts for information like the date, time, location and injuries. It’s a a legally admissible documentation tool in all 50 U.S. states, and can also help navigate tribal jurisdiction and legal compliance in tribal courts There’s an annual cost to access the app, but if you can’t afford it you can reach out to their partner organizations to get a free access license.
An app designed to act as an emergency response system, eBodyguard helps 911 pinpoint your location and gather information to help first responders like police and EMTs get to you faster. When activated, eBodyguard also begins recording audio of the scene, which can later be used as evidence in a criminal investigation. The eBodycam feature is a paid option that allows video to be captured automatically.
Created by the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh and Vodafone Americas Foundation, this app helps you identify risk factors and assess your safety in a relationship, find help if you need it and securely journal incidents of abuse.
This app allows you to record incoming and outgoing calls as well as calls you’re already on. Audio recordings of threatening, harassing or abusive phone calls can serve as evidence, but sometimes recording conversations can be difficult without an app. TapeACall also syncs with cloud services, so you can save your recorded documentation in a protected space and not on your phone.
Learn more about recording phone calls to prove abuse and crucial information you should know about wiretapping laws before you begin recording.
Note: TapeACall does, by default, include “beep tones that signal when a call is being recorded,” according to TapeACall’s support. “[The tones] can be disabled if it doesn't conflict with the laws of the country/state.” TapeACall also advises, “Many mobile carriers may inform parties about conference calls/recording.”
If you aren’t able to safely store documentation on a device like your phone or laptop, consider uploading evidence to the cloud. There are a lot of cloud storage options available and many come with a large amount of free storage. Check out:
Make sure to remember to remove any documentation from your device after you upload it to a secure location.
Documentation of Abuse Builds Your Case
Safely and thoroughly documenting the abuse you’re experiencing is hard. It also comes with its own risks.
However, the impact of documentation shouldn’t be underestimated. Many judges are doubtful of domestic violence survivors and the very nature of abuse can make recalling or discussing the trauma challenging. But documentation helps you build your case with provable facts–especially important when abusers often bend or manipulate truth, facts and reality to make themselves come out on top.
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