Verbal Abuse and the Courts
by Patricia Evans

(This article may not be reproduced in any form or medium except for personal use: informing an attorney or selecting legal help.)

People who experience both verbal abuse and physical abuse in a relationship say that the verbal abuse is the worst. Everyone I’ve asked who had suffered both these abuses agrees, and women who lead support groups for battered women report getting the same feedback.

Verbal abuse is usually hidden. It takes a long time to recover. It is very traumatizing. It can go on for the length of a long relationship without becoming physical. Also, it precedes and is part of physically abusive and threatening relationships--ones where a person is hit, pushed, shoved, or witnesses demonstrations of violence. Verbal abuse is so much like mind control that the victim may doubt her sanity. I have heard from thousands of women. They nearly all speak of the extreme mental anguish and emotional pain they experience.

When the relationship can’t be healed people seek help with divorce and custody. I hope that as awareness of the trauma of verbal abuse increases the courts and legal systems will become increasingly sensitive to the plight of abused people and will take steps to end the archaic practice of forcing the traumatized victim to be in the same room as the persecutor for any length of time as, for instance, in co-parenting instruction.

Many attorneys hand their clients a copy of The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond to help them understand what has happened to them, and many clients bring the book to their attorneys to tell them what has happened to them.

If you need an attorney or a paralegal and have a very low income, or no income, you may find help at the following web site of the American Bar Association Center for Pro Bono

This ABA site provides information about legal services, who qualifies for them, and about Pro Bono Programs, that is, free legal help in civil cases, not criminal. A state by state directory local pro bono programs--groups of attorneys who take cases for free is listed. Click on your state to see the groups.

If you know of any case where evidence of verbal abuse was the deciding factor, we would appreciate hearing from you. You can assist us in helping others by giving us the date, state, county and case number. Please email the information to us at

The following list is provided with permission from

Questions to ask the attorney you interview re: divorce or custody
• Have you or any members of your firm ever represented my partner or anyone associated with my partner?

Questions about Type and Number of Cases
• Do you handle divorce or custody cases?
• How many of these cases have you handled?
• How many of them were contested?
• How many of them went to trial?
• Did any of the cases involve expert witnesses?
• How many were before the judge(s) who will hear my case?
• What kind of decisions does this judge usually make?

Questions about Appeals
• Have you ever appealed a case, and if so, what were the issue(s) appealed?
• How many of these appealed cases did you win? (Remember that even excellent attorneys lose cases)

Questions About Attorney Fees and Costs
• What are your fees? What work do these fees cover? Is this an hourly fee or a flat fee for the entire case?
• Is there an additional charge for appearing in court?
• Do you ever charge less for people who do not have much money?
• Do you charge a retainer? How much? What does it cover? Do you refund all or part of the retainer if my case ends up being dropped or not taking much time? (Attorneys should be willing to refund any part of the retainer not spent.)
• Are there other expenses which I may have to pay? What are they and how much are they likely to be?

Questions About Staff
• Will you be the only person working on my case? What will other people do?
• How will I be charged for their work? Will I be charged for speaking to your secretary? Your receptionist?
• Are there ways that I can assist you so as to keep down my costs?
• Are you willing to work out a payment plan with me?

Questions About Documentation
• Will you send me a copy of letters, documents, and court papers that you file or receive regarding my case?
• Do you charge extra if the case gets more complicated or we have to go back to court?
• Will you require that I have paid everything that I owe you before you will go to court with me or finish my case? (Many attorneys do this. They may also refuse to return your original papers or copies of your file, and in some states this may be legal. Therefore you should insist on getting a copy of any paper filed with the court or given or received from another party or otherwise relevant to your case. Be sure to keep all of them in a safe place, in case you ever need them.)
• Will you put our agreement about fees and what work you will perform in writing?

Questions About Cases Involving Domestic Violence
• How much experience have you had with cases involving domestic violence?
• Which party did you represent (the victim, the abuser, or the children)?
• Do you generally believe women who tell you that they have been battered?
• Do you go to court with women wanting to obtain orders of protection against their abusers?
• How sympathetic to battered women are the judges who will hear my case?
• What are the laws of this state regarding which parent should be given custody when one parent has abused the other parent? Does the judge(s) who will probably hear my case follow these laws?
• What do you think about joint custody awards in cases involving domestic violence?
• What do you think about mediation in cases where there has been domestic violence?
• Do the expert witnesses likely to be involved understand the need to protect battered women and children?
• What kind of custody and visitation arrangements do they usually recommend in cases involving domestic violence?
• Do the judges usually follow their recommendations?
• Do you have a working relationship with the local battered women’s program? With whom have you worked?
• Do you have a working relationship with any batterer intervention programs? Which one(s)?
• How helpful is the local prosecutor in handling domestic violence cases?

Questions About Contested Custody Cases
• Do you usually believe mothers who tell you that their child(ren)’s father has physically or sexually abused them?

• How do you handle cases where parental alienation syndrome is alleged?

• How do the custody evaluators that you work with feel about cases where the father has abused the child(ren)? Do they usually believe a mother’s statements about the abuse? What kind of custody and visitation recommendations do they usually make?

• How does the judge(s) who will probably decide my case feel about cases where the child’s father has abused the child(ren)? Do they believe mothers who have made reports about the father’s physical abuse of the child? About a parent's sexual abuse of the child?

• Will someone be appointed for the children, and how will that person feel about a parent's physical abuse of the child? About a parent's sexual abuse of the child? Will it matter if the child protective service agency has substantiated the abuse? If a parent was convicted or pled guilty to the abuse in a criminal case?

• What do you do to protect children in cases when you know that their parent is abusing them?

• Are you willing to stand up for my case, even if it angers the judge? If none of the abuse allegations have been made public yet, what do you recommend about whether to raise them and how, and how to keep my children safe?

If you find that you are in an intolerable marriage and need to extricate yourself from an abusive relationship, it is important that you know the divorce and separation laws in your state, and have a sense of what to expect, and if you have children, what you might encounter in custody arrangements.

Here are some web sites to find out the divorce laws in your state and other information you will need.

A good place to start. What are the laws in your state? And what is the difference between a legal separation and divorce? What is customary in custody? You’ll get answers here!

A very comprehensive resource with information for each state designed to help you find answers to your questions.

More divorce information

A useful site to find lawyers, experts and consultants

This is about legal help for the poor. Here you will find a state by state directory of PRO BONO groups--groups of attorneys who take on cases for free, or on a sliding scale depending on your income.

Verbal abusers as much as batterers can be extremely traumatizing. In many cases being in the same room is traumatic.

Ask your attorney if you can meet before court so that you will not be alone with the abuser. Or wait near a security guard or a bailiff and ask your attorney to be with you as much as possible. Be aware that abusers repeatedly harass, or emotionally coerce victims in court.

Tell your attorney you want to sit some distance from the verbal abuser or batterer while you wait for the case to be called. Ask your attorney before court to sit between you and your abuser or batterer.

Batterers and verbal abusers control and threaten their former victims with body language. Do not permit the batterer or verbal abuser to speak to you and ask your attorney to help you keep this from occurring by, for instance, discussing any settlement negotiations with the batterer (or the batterer's lawyer if represented by counsel) and then reporting back to you.

Attorneys Please Note the Following
Take the same precautions with the abuser's family members in abuse cases as you do for the victim, it is not uncommon for the abuser's family members to assault or verbally abuse the victim in court. Safeguard children. Make certain that your client is safe when exiting the courthouse. Abusers often stalk victims to discover where they live, or to punish them for taking legal action.

If the verbal abuser is also a batterer:
Assess for lethality. Your client has an increased risk of being severely assaulted or killed by the batterer if the batterer possesses weapons, abuses drugs or alcohol, stalks your client, or has threatened homicide or suicide.

Advise your client to stay at a shelter, or with friends or relatives, if your client fears that the batterer will assault or kill her. When your client has children, make certain that you have examined existing court orders and statutes to determine how flight may affect a custody case.

Under certain circumstances, it may be necessary for a client to disappear completely. Assist your client to change names and social security numbers if necessary.

Be aware of your safety. Most batterers seek to control their former or current partners, rather than their lawyers, and many batterers appear to be well-behaved in court. Nevertheless, some lawyers representing victims of domestic violence have been threatened by batterers or their family members Take precautions if a problem arises.

Sources Ronet Bachman & Linda E. Salzman, U.S. Dept. of Justice, National Crime Victimization Survey, Violence Against Women: Estimates from the Redesigned Survey 1, 4 (1995).
Barbara J. Hart & Jane Stuehling,Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Personalized Safety Plan (1992)
Office of the City Attorney, City of San Diego, California, Personalized Safety Plan (1990).
Cambridge Police Department, Domestic Violence Safety Plan Norfolk County District Attorney's Office, Massachusetts, Personal Safety Plan and Youth Safety Plan (1996).