How to Document Abuse

By Sunny Lim

If victims in abusive relationships are pursuing legal action against the abusers or preparing to do so, documenting the abusers’ behaviors can be an important part of the case.

All states have different laws about what evidence is allowed in court, so it is important to contact legal advocates in your state to discuss ways to document your abuser’s behaviors and to build your case. Domestic violence hotlines can connect victims to legal advocates.  

Documenting abuse is important because it can be used as evidence in court and it can alert victims whether the abuser’s pattern is escalating.

According to WomensLaw, most states allow evidence such as:

  • Pictures with time and date of injuries,
  • Medical documents (e.g. x-rays) of injuries from the abuse,
  • Police reports from when victims and witnesses called for help,
  • Testimony from victims and witnesses,
  • A journal of written documentation of the abuse including the time, date, and description of each incident and
  • Pictures of any objects broken by the abuser.

Documenting abuse can be dangerous for victims. If the abuser discovers that the victim is in the middle of pursuing legal action, then it might trigger violent episodes from the abuser, resulting in more injuries or even death.

It is absolutely important to remember to only document abuse that is relevant. If victims capture pictures of irrelevant situations unrelated to the abusers’ behaviors, it can be thrown out of court.

Because documentation of abuse can also be challenging and life-threatening, there are ways to accumulate evidence in a safe manner.  

Make copies of everything

Create paper copies of your abuse and give them to a trusted family member, friend, or domestic violence advocate. If your copy is destroyed, you have an extra copy. If you can obtain a safe deposit bank, place another copy there and give the key to a trusted person. Make sure no paper trail of your documentation is accessible to the abuser.

Record phone calls

Record harassing and threatening phone calls and conversations from the abuser. Remember to check the recording laws in your state. Some states allow phone calls to be recorded if one party knows that it is being recorded, but other states mandate that both parties know it is being recorded.

Document phone numbers and caller ID

Take a screenshot of your call log that includes the date, time and the number of calls. If it shows the abuser calling excessively, it can be strong evidence in court. Take a photo of the caller ID to show it’s the abuser calling.

Document emails

Do not delete threatening and harassing emails. Print them out and make copies. Give those copies to a trusted person. Take screenshots of the emails. Do not forward the emails because it destroys the IP address of the sender.

Screenshot text messages

Because text messages might be automatically deleted due to space usage, screenshot threatening and harassing messages. Make sure the picture includes the abuser’s phone number. If you’re already working with police on the case, tell them to send a letter to the phone company to prevent the text message data from being erased.

Document social media incidents

Take screenshots of threatening and harassing posts or messages from the abuser on all social media sites like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Tell the police to contact those sites in order to preserve the data.

Go to the hospital

According to the National Institute of Justice, more hospitals are training doctors and nurses how to document abuse. Have them take pictures of the abuse. Make sure their handwriting is legible. It is also important for healthcare workers to refrain from writing conclusory statements like “The patient is a battered woman.” Only document factual information. Write down the patient’s demeanor and emotional state. Do not write anything that implies doubt about the patient’s trustworthiness. Do not use legal terms. Include the time and date of the patient’s examination. Show that the victims’ statements are said on their own admission. It is important for healthcare workers to follow these rules since past medical records have been dismissed in court because of illegible handwriting and conclusory statements.

Ask for help documenting abuse

If you have trusted friends, co-workers, and family members, ask them to help you document the abuse. For instance, have the co-worker write down how many times the abuser has shown up to the workplace or how many times the abuser calls you. Give copies of the documentation to trusted people.

Make a stalking log

If the abuser is stalking you, write down all the dates, times and descriptions involved in the incidents.

Contact witnesses

Anyone (e.g. doctors, neighbors, children, co-workers) who saw or heard the abuse can be a witness in court. Some witnesses cannot testify unless you give them a subpoena, which requires them to come to court. You can fill out subpoena forms, which have to be signed by the judged. Some states have specific laws about how and when the subpoena is given to the witness, so make sure to look up the rules. If witnesses are unable to appear in court, let the judge know immediately to avoid penalties.

Keep a journal

Write down times, dates, and detailed descriptions of incidents.

Store documentation in a safe manner

Find a password-protected site for journaling the abuse. Hide all paper and photocopies of the abuse by giving them to trusted people (e.g. family members, co-workers, law enforcement). Make a secret email, and send pictures of evidence to yourself. Do not write down any passwords (memorize them), and do not mention your documentation plan to anyone electronically since the abuser might be hacking into your emails and phone.

For more resources on how to document abuse, check out these resources from the National Domestic Violence Hotline and Loveisrespect.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.

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