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Domestic Violence

Domestic violence can form the basis for both a crime under state criminal law (and bring the perpetrator subject to punishment involving restraint, incarceration, and monetary fines) as well as for a civil lawsuit brought by the victim (with the possible award of monetary damages along with permanent court orders prohibiting contact).

What is Domestic Violence?

What is domestic violence exactly? The U.S. Office on Violence Against Women defines it as a "pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner." All domestic violence involves manipulation and the abuse of power, and it encompasses any form of abuse within the home.

In some jurisdictions domestic violence is referred to as domestic abuse or spousal abuse. Regardless of the terminology, it occurs when a family member, partner, spouse, or ex-spouse tries to dominate another -- either physically or psychologically.

Domestic violence occurs between spouses and cohabitating intimate partners: the formality of marriage is not necessary in order to bring a domestic violence charge. For this reason, the American Medical Association defines "intimate partner abuse" as "the physical sexual and/or psychological abuse to an individual perpetrated by a current or former intimate partner. While this term is gender-neutral, women are more likely to experience physical injuries and incur psychological consequences of intimate partner abuse."

The Types of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence takes many forms. It can be direct and physical, involving anything from minor assaults (a push or a shove) to more serious assault, and even rape or murder. Incest and sexual abuse are both forms of direct domestic violence. It can also involve indirect, physical violence -- such as the destruction of material items or the harming of beloved pets.

Emotional abuse can be domestic violence, as well. This occurs when there are verbal threats of physical violence to the victim or the victim’s loved ones, usually their children or pets. Emotional abuse can also involve insults and degrading comments.

Domestic violence can involve psychological abuse, as well. Here, the perpetrator controls the victim’s source of funds, as well as the victim’s ability to communicate with friends and family.

The most common example of domestic violence is a battered wife, but domestic violence is much more than physical attack. Examples of domestic violence include name-calling; withholding money; sabotaging one's employment; threatening physical harm; sexual assault; controlling one’s communications with friends and family; and stalking. It can be repetitive, annoying telephone calls to the ex-partner’s workplace, or threatening letters that are sent to a spouse. Any activity intended to dominate one’s spouse can constitute domestic violence.

The Law and Domestic Violence

Domestic violence results in many different criminal charges. Battery, assault, stalking, and mail tampering are just a few of the possible charges that can be brought against an abuser in a domestic violence situation.

Across the country, courts routinely issue "restraining orders," sometimes called "protective orders," in an attempt to control the abuser’s contact with the victim. These are court orders defining specific boundaries and barriers for the abuser, and his (or her) failure to abide by them will result in their immediate arrest.

Typically, these restraining orders prohibit an abuser from contacting, attacking, threatening, battering, telephoning, e-mailing, or otherwise disturbing the peace of the protected person. These orders also usually require the restrained person to stay at least 100 -- 500 yards away from the protected person, as well as from their residence, and their place of employment, and the orders usually extend to children and other family members in the same residence as the victim, as well.

In most jurisdictions, it is possible for a victim to obtain a temporary restraining order without the abuser being present in the courtroom -- or even being aware that an order has been requested; however, these orders are only good for two to three weeks. To justify the continuance of the order, a hearing will be required in order to meet the due process protections accorded any citizen who has had a court order placed upon their behavior without being present at the time.

This "show cause" hearing (where the victim must show cause for the order to remain in effect) can turn the temporary order into a permanent one, with or without the abuser being present. The victim only needs to show that the abuser had actual knowledge of the date and time of the hearing, with reasonable advance notice (usually a minimum of 3 days). This notice requirement is commonly met through the use of a process server.

Once in place, a restraining order (temporary or permanent) can result in the abuser being arrested and jailed if he violates the order, because his actions will be seen as contempt of court. Depending upon the activity involved in violating the order, he may also be charged with either a misdemeanor or felony, as well as face jail time and monetary fines. For example, an abuser breaking into the home can be charged with burglary as well as contempt; an abuser following a victim home from work can be charged with stalking as well as contempt.


Domestic violence is increasing in parts of the country, while it is declining statistically overall. In March 2008, for example, Massachusetts found domestic violence deaths in the state to have tripled since 2005. However, studies undertaken by the U.S. Office of Domestic Violence have found that overall, the national averages for domestic violence have declined from 1993-2005.

Today, most instances of reported domestic violence continue to be simple assaults, occurring in the daytime, in the couple’s home. Statistically, less than half (41%) of these instances will involve alcohol or drugs.

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