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Although you may feel concerned or even terrified about testifying against the person who abused you, there are good reasons to work through your fear and do it anyway. Here are some: speaking your truth in court can be empowering; you may save your life and others’ lives by testifying and testifying may be the only way to achieve safety.
Here are nine ways to prepare yourself to testify. In another piece, "Taking the Stand in Domestic Violence," I discuss the testifying itself—those moments on the stand.
- Learn about the process. Are you testifying in a deposition, a hearing or a trial? Is this for a civil or criminal case? Each of these situations differ, state laws differ and judges handle cases in a variety of ways. Get the information you need as early in the process as you can. A domestic violence advocate should be able to educate you about the general norms in your area. If you have an attorney, they will have information about your specific case. If it is a criminal case, you may be able to tap into the support and knowledge of a victim/witness advocate through the prosecutor (district attorney’s) office or the police. Keep asking questions until you get the answers you need.
- Prepare a written account of the abusive events and keep it hidden in a safe place. Record the (approximate) date, what happened, any evidence that you might have and possible witnesses. Maybe there were too many instances of abuse for you to record them all. Start with the most memorable or extreme ones. If the abuse included daily control and humiliations, record these, too. If you have photographs of injuries, make sure these are stored somewhere other than on your phone so they will not disappear if your phone is stolen or destroyed. While sexual incidents may seem embarrassing to describe, these may form an important part of your case. Try to write about all the events. Here is a piece on collecting evidence safely.
- Build a support system. The abuser may have isolated you as part of a controlling strategy, but the court process will be much easier if you have people on your side. Seek the support of a therapist, a domestic violence advocate, a trustworthy friend, a domestic violence support group at your local shelter, an attorney or supportive family members. You don’t need a lot of people—but you need key people who will have your back.
- Cut ties with people who blame you, at least temporarily. You may have hidden the abuse from others, or maybe they have known about the abuse all along. For many reasons, people you know may take the abuser’s side and blame you, putting pressure on you not to testify. They will confuse your thinking and put you at risk. Block them, stop visitation (unless it is court-mandated), and do not contact them or allow them to contact you at least until after the court process. You need to focus on justice and healing.
- Remember that abusers are responsible for their actions. Do not forget that the abuser chose to dominate you or hurt you physically. No matter what you did or said, or failed to do or say, the abuser could have chosen not to become violent. Even if the abuser was intoxicated, the abuser chose to raise a fit, grab you by the neck or assault you sexually. Therefore, the abuser is responsible for the consequences.
- Free yourself from guilt about testifying. Abusers commonly press their partners to feel responsible or guilty about the abuse, calling the police or testifying. Someone who chooses to abuse should face consequences for that choice. You do not determine the punishment—that is up to the judicial system.
- Establish clear boundaries with the abuser. It is usually best to cut off contact entirely—get an order of protection, block phone calls, set up visitation through apps rather than through texts or phone calls, block the abuser on social media, etc. Maintaining contact puts you at risk of succumbing to control disguised as love.
- Report dangerousness. Some abusers become murderous after a breakup, so be extra careful. Report to the police if the abuser has access to weapons, especially firearms, and if the abuser has used a weapon against you, strangled you, threatened to kill you or your children, stalked or sexually assaulted you, controlled you or physically assaulted your children.
- Discuss your fears in advance. Sometimes abusers tell their lawyers about everything the victim has ever done wrong, such as abusing drugs or alcohol, harshly disciplining a child, lying to the police, failing to pay taxes, etc. Make a list of the matters that worry you and ask your lawyer, “What will happen if they bring this up?” Most of the time, these issues are irrelevant and your lawyer can object if they are raised. Anticipating these possible problems will help soothe your worries and will also help your lawyer devise a strategy to handle these concerns.
Speaking the truth under oath turns out to be liberating for many people who have been victimized. Preparation will make it a little easier, and help you be more successful.
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What happens if the abuser destroys your evidence or it was never safe to collect any records while you with an abuser? Read “When You Can’t Collect Evidence,” for tips on preparing other ways to prove abuse.
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