Many states provide enhanced criminal penalties for offenders who commit violence within the household. Domestic violence abusers also open themselves up to civil liability, as victims and their children pursue compensation in a private lawsuit.

  • Forced sexual activity
  • Assault and battery
  • Child abuse

Contact our experienced attorneys today to learn more about your legal options in the civil justice system.

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Domestic violence is a serious crime, punishable through prison time, large monetary fines, rehabilitation courses and lengthy probation periods. Abusers in the home also risk losing their rights to custody or visitation. Alongside these criminal implications, criminal offenders also open themselves up to civil liability.

Many victims of domestic violence have the right to file a civil lawsuit against their abuser, since domestic violence is a tort, a wrong committed by one member of society against another. Through a civil lawsuit, you can secure financial compensation for your medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering.

What Is Domestic Violence?

In most states, domestic violence is defined as violent or excessively aggressive behavior that occurs within the home. Intimate partner violence is the name used to describe domestic violence when it's committed by a spouse or partner in an intimate relationship, but the crime of domestic violence is never limited to violence between spouses or partners.

Prison Wall

Any violence committed within a household (taken broadly) counts as domestic violence, including:

  • Former spouse or partner
  • Children
  • Current household member
  • Former household members
  • Parent
  • Grandparent
  • Girlfriend or boyfriend
  • Past girlfriend or boyfriend
  • Mother or father of child

Many experts now consider domestic violence to be a crime of control; one member of the household, usually a spouse, uses violence or sexual abuse to secure "mastery" over another.

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This newer understanding of domestic violence has largely replaced older interpretations, in which researchers thought of violence in the home as the result of an abuser's uncontrollable aggression. Domestic violence, most experts believe, is a matter of control, not emotion. Regardless of the theory, no one, absolutely no one, should live under these circumstances.

Seek Help If Your Life Is In Danger

If you fear for your own life, or the lives of your children, call 911 immediately. Victims of domestic violence have a wide range of legal options, both criminal and civil, to protect their own safety and the safety of their loved ones.

Physical, Emotional & Financial Abuse

Over the last few decades, the definition of domestic violence has come to include more and more aspects of abuse, Psychology Today reports. Domestic violence isn't just marked by physical aggression anymore, as experts have come to understand the debilitating and dehumanizing effects of verbal, emotional and economic abuse.

  • forced sexual activity
  • forcing someone to take drugs or drink
  • constant name-calling, berating or criticizing
  • creating an environment of fear and isolation through verbal or psychological means
  • controlling a partner's life by controlling the family's finances
    • withholding money
    • preventing a partner from seeking or maintaining employment
  • denying someone the ability to seek medical care

The majority of states treat threats of violence the same as the actual infliction of physical injuries; both threatening to hurt a household member and actually hurting that person are examples of domestic violence.

How State Criminal Laws Define Domestic Violence

Most state laws, however, haven't yet taken up this broad understanding of domestic violence. When state laws define the criminal act of domestic violence, the definition usually includes two parts:

  • a specific subset of criminal acts
  • a special relationship between the offender and the victim

Domestic violence, in many jurisdictions, is an "additive" crime, since committing violence (or sexual abuse) against someone else is already a crime.

What the charge of domestic violence does is enhance the penalties for pre-existing criminal acts when the victim is a spouse, family member or intimate partner. These laws, enforced by state prosecutors, are designed to strengthen families and maintain functioning family units by imposing harsher penalties on people who commit crimes that threaten those family units.

Some states set out separate laws to criminalize violence against intimate partners, while other jurisdictions use household relationship as an aggravating factor in making sentencing decisions.

Households In The Past & Dating Relationships

As we've seen, domestic violence occurs within a household, between intimate partners, parents and children, or people who are dating. That's true in the criminal law, too.

In this context, "household" is a broad term that includes households we maintained in the past (as when one person abuses their former spouse) and "virtual" households defined by an intimate partner relationship, regardless of whether or not the victim and offender lived together (as when a boyfriend beats his girlfriend before they move in together).

One Violent Episode Is Enough

Domestic violence doesn't have to be repeated to be a crime.

While many abusers inflict countless hours of abuse against their victims over the course of years, a single act of violence in the home is enough to count as domestic violence, and thus violate criminal law. And it's not limited to active intimate partnerships; a former spouse or partner can also commit domestic violence.

Risk Factors

Domestic violence can happen to anyone, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. It happens in heterosexual couples and gay couples. It occurs regardless of race and socioeconomic status. At the same time, we have to admit that domestic violence is more common in certain situations.

It's more common in poor households and more often perpetrated by people with histories of alcoholism and substance abuse.

It's more likely to occur in relationships bound together by an extreme emotional dependence, in which the relationship's members have little contact with friends or family members outside the home.

It's more common in households that observe a strict separation in gender roles, though there's conflicting evidence on whether or not couples who live by traditional religious principles are more likely to experience domestic violence.

It's more common during times of economic instability, when fights can break out over financial shocks, and be exacerbated by anxiety over the family's financial position.

And it's particularly common when the victim has a history of psychological or physical abuse in the past, along with the struggles against low self-esteem by which such a history is often accompanied.

How Does A Restraining Order Work?

Restraining orders can't stop an abuser from stalking or harming you; it's very hard (and sometimes illegal) for law enforcement officials to intervene in the lives of individuals before they have done something wrong.

What a restraining order does is allow you to call the police and have the person arrested if they violate the terms of the order.

A restraining order is a court order that forces the person, at the risk of criminal liability, to abstain from doing something. Every state in the Union, along with Washington, D.C., has a law that allows domestic violence survivors to secure a restraining order (some states call it a "protection order").

State Laws On Getting A Protective Order

States vary, however, in what they allow these restraining orders to do. Here are a few common elements that you'll find in a court's restraining order:

  • No contact - makes it illegal for the abuser to contact (call, text, email), stalk or attack the victim
  • Limited contact - allows the abuser to communicate with the victim in a peaceful manner for the purposes of child visitation
  • Exclusive use - forces the abuser to move out of a residence that is shared with the victim or give up mutual use of a vehicle
  • Stay away - makes it illegal for the abuser to come within a prescribed distance (usually over 300 feet) of the victim, their residence, place of employment, school or vehicle
  • Firearm forfeiture - obligates the offender to hand over any guns they own and (in some states) forbids them from purchasing a new gun
  • Mental health counseling - compels the abuser to participate in a course of counseling, like anger management classes
  • Financial support - orders the abuser to pay temporary financial support to the victim, or continue making mortgage payments on a home shared with the victim
  • Restitution - obligates the offender to pay the victim financial compensation for medical expenses, mental health counseling, lost wages and / or property damage

Applying for a restraining order takes place through the court system. Victims are required to file paperwork with the court and participate in a court hearing to determine that the restraining order is necessary to protect the health and safety of the applicant.

That can be scary, especially if you think that your abuser is going to show up in court, too. Most states have a work-around for these situations; restraining orders can be granted ex parte, without the presence or knowledge of the abuser.

How Long Does A Restraining Order Last?

Restraining orders often include multiple parties for protection, including children and other people who now live with the victim, like a current intimate partner.

Most protection orders last between 1 to 5 years, though many victims start out by securing an emergency protection order from the police. These restraining orders, frequently granted after police have been called to a household to investigate allegations of domestic violence, usually only lasts between 3 to 7 days.

Protection Order Violations

Abusers who violate the terms of their restraining order can be arrested and prosecuted for doing so. In some states, violating a restraining order constitutes a felony (usually in the case of serious violations).

Other jurisdictions treat it as a misdemeanor, or hold the offender in contempt of court. Criminal prosecutors can also request criminal protection orders during the course of legal proceedings.

Filing A Civil Domestic Violence Lawsuit

Pursuing a civil lawsuit against your abuser might seem impossible right now. It's hard enough to report domestic violence to the police or seek a restraining order, especially when the lives of children will be directly impacted. At the same time, taking private legal action can be deeply empowering, a way of coming to terms with the abuse you've suffered.

Fundamentally, pursuing a civil lawsuit is a way of taking control over the situation, rather than allowing your abuser to continue controlling it.

Reach Out For A Free, Confidential Consultation Today

Filing a lawsuit doesn't have to be expensive. At Crime Victim Advocates, our experienced lawyers provide their legal services on a contingency-fee basis, which means that you pay nothing unless we win your case. If we don't secure compensation for you, you owe us nothing.

Remember that none of this is your fault. While many victims come to believe, or fear, that they somehow deserve mistreatment, or have elicited violent reactions in their spouse through "misbehavior," nothing could be further from the truth. You are worth more than this. You and your children deserve the opportunity to thrive in a home free of violence and abuse.

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