For more than three decades, October has been recognized by the U.S. government as National Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. President Joe Biden released a proclamation on Thursday calling on “all Americans to speak out against domestic violence and support efforts to educate young people about healthy relationships centered on respect; support victims and survivors in your own families and networks; and to support the efforts of victim advocates, service providers, health care providers, and the legal system, as well as the leadership of survivors, in working to end domestic violence.”
Once you have identified yourself as a victim or potential victim of domestic violence, you may wish to seek the intervention of police or a court to protect you or your children from your abuser. That decision will almost certainly raise a number of questions. The legal side of protection from domestic violence can be daunting. While every situation is different, there are some generalities that are helpful to understand.
Do I need a lawyer?
Navigating the world of lawyers during a stressful time is no simple feat. The decision about whether, when, how, and who to hire lies with you, and every situation is unique. However, there are some things that are always true:
You always have the right to be represented by legal counsel when dealing with police or courts. Depending on your jurisdiction and your financial circumstances, you may be entitled to a court-appointed lawyer who will represent you free of charge.
Although you have the right to be represented by a lawyer, you are under no obligation to use one. Many domestic violence victims choose to represent themselves, especially during early phases of the legal proceedings. It’s never “too late for a lawyer.” If you begin by representing yourself, and then you decide later that you would like a lawyer to represent you, you’ll always be permitted to make that change.
Many lawyers specialize in domestic violence matters. If you know you’d like to hire a lawyer, but need help finding the right one, here are a few places you can explore for referrals:
Legal referral websites: www.avvo.com, www.Justia.com, and www.martindale.com. All are reputable websites which list lawyers and law firms, organized by practice area.
Your state bar association: Lawyers are licensed by individual states, and state bar associations often have current information about their attorneys.
Other lawyers: You may know an attorney who practices in a different practice area. Although that person may not be right to handle your domestic violence case, they may be an excellent place to start for a trustworthy referral.
Some state agencies and private organizations provide free legal counsel to victims of domestic violence. If you think you would like to use the services of a private lawyer, but need help paying for one, check these agencies out.
Protective orders (which also go by the name “restraining orders”) are court orders that a person do something or refrain from doing something. Typical orders include:
Orders requiring a defendant to stay away from a residence.
Orders requiring a defendant to stay away from the plaintiff and/or children.
Orders requiring a defendant to refrain from harassing or threatening a plaintiff or children.
Orders requiring a defendant to turn over firearms or other weapons.
The purpose of these orders is to create immediate consequences if they are violated. Usually, a person who violates an order of protection can be immediately arrested or criminally charged for doing so. That person may face fines, jail time, employment consequences, and a permanent criminal record.
How do I get a restraining order against an abuser?
While aspects of the procedures can vary state by state, there are some general basics we can share. There are two primary routes whereby a person can obtain a “temporary” order or protection.
- In most states, a person can head to local family court (for family members) or criminal court (for non-family members) and file for an order. Court staff will provide the necessary paperwork, a judge will review your request, and if they agree, the court will issue you a temporary order. That order will then be served upon the defendant by a law enforcement officer. The defendant will be given a “return date” on which they are expected to make a court appearance. On that return date, you will also be expected to come to court and explain what happened and why you require an ongoing court order to protect you.
- A second route is to go directly to police, who will take down a written statement. If the police believe a crime has been committed, they will arrest the alleged wrongdoer. Once that person appears in court to defend the criminal charge, the prosecutor can request an order of protection on your behalf.
Note: During the pandemic, a lot of procedures have moved online. The process for meeting with police, prosecutors, and judges may be something you can do from your computer or mobile phone.
In most states, you’d need to prove two things in order to get a protective order: 1) that the defendant has already committed some kind of offense against you in the past; and 2) that without an order, you are at risk for suffering violence in the future.
How long does a restraining order last?
- A “temporary” order usually lasts only until the next court date. At that date, the judge will decide whether to “continue” the order.
- A “final” order can last for a specific amount of time (for example, one year from the time the judge issued it), or can continue for a lengthier period, sometimes up to five years.
Special thanks to attorney and Law&Crime host Julie Rendelman for her contribution to this piece and for her ongoing commitment to supporting survivors of domestic violence.
If you need immediate help, contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline by using the number, website, or text address below.
The NDVH website is specially equipped to allow users to close the window quickly and to hide their internet history.
Text “START” to 888788
[Image via Joe Raedle/Getty Images]
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