During law school I was lucky enough to be chosen to participate in a domestic violence service that provided free representation to survivors of domestic violence. While some people may refer to these survivors as victims, I find that term to be misleading. Many of the men and women we assisted were not “victims” as we picture them from movies or books. But they were people surviving physical, emotional, psychological and even sexual atrocities on a daily basis. My passion for this work continued throughout law school and in my career when I began working with the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office, first as a certified legal intern and then as an Assistant District Attorney.
During my time in the District Attorney’s Office, I became part of the Special Victims Unit (yes, just like Alex Cabot from Law & Order SVU). During my time with SVU, I became the Chief of the Domestic Violence Unit focusing on trials related to violence and control within relationships. In this role, I worked closely with the Network of Victim Assistance and other programs dedicated to providing resources for men and women who need to escape violence and do so safely. After leaving the District Attorney’s Office, I began working with one of the most prominent criminal defense attorney’s in the area where I began to defend those that were accused of domestic violence and helped ensure that the process did what it was intended to do….set protections and provide safety for those who were in need but also prevent the use of restraining orders from being used as weapons to gain an advantage or just to hurt someone else.
In order to provide all the information about the restraining order process that is important for both survivors and those accused of committing acts of domestic violence to know, I decided that providing the information in a series of blog posts would be far more informative (and let’s be honest, less like a boring reading assignment from school) if I provided this information in a series. Here is part one.
Domestic Violence and Restraining Orders…Where do I begin?
The United States Department of Justice defines domestic violence, or intimate partner violence, as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another person. It is important to understand that domestic or intimate partner violence is not limited to physical assaults. Domestic violence can also be sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological. Many people do not realize that domestic violence is not limited to the actual actions taken, but also to the threats of actions or threats of inaction that are aimed to influence another person. Some examples are behaviors aimed to control, intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, harass, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, or injure someone.
Domestic violence does not recognize race, age, sexual orientation, religion, or gender. Domestic violence affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, education levels and occurs in both opposite-sex and same-sex relationships and can happen to intimate partners who are married, living together, or dating.
In New Jersey there is the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (N.J.S.A 2C:33 et al.- also called “the Act”) which aims at protecting individuals from domestic violence and intimate partner violence as described above. In order for the Act to apply, the parties must have had a specific relationship at present or in the past and although the gender of the parties does not matter. The relationship must be one of the following:
- living together in the same household at present or in the past;
- a person whom the plaintiff has dated or a person with whom the plaintiff has a child in common or anticipates having a child in common.
While the person accused of domestic violence under the Act must be 18 or older (or emancipated minor), the age of a victim of domestic violence is only relevant when they are seeking protection from a spouse, former spouse, or present or former household member in which case the victim must be 18 or older (or emancipated minor). In all other relationships as outlined above, the Act applies regardless of the victim’s age.
Victims of domestic violence may get help through the courts. A victim who has been in a violent relationship and feels unsafe may be able to take steps to keep the abuser away by filing a temporary restraining order. A restraining order is an order issued by the court that is intended to protect a victim of domestic violence. The provisions contained in this type of court order are based upon the circumstances and vary from case to case. A judge may grant a restraining order if the victim proves that he or she has been subjected to one of the 19 crimes set forth in the Act and is in need of the protections of that order. The offenses listed within the Act are: homicide, assault, terroristic threats, kidnapping, criminal restraint, false imprisonment, sexual assault, criminal sexual contact, lewdness, criminal mischief, burglary, criminal trespass, harassment, stalking, criminal coercion, robbery, contempt of a domestic violence order and any crime involving risk of death or serious bodily injury and cyber harassment.
In order to obtain a restraining order, a survivor of domestic violence may file where the domestic violence occurred, where the defendant resides, where the survivor resides, or where the survivor is sheltered or temporarily staying. A person seeking a TRO can file at the Domestic Violence Unit of the Superior Court-Family Division or the local police department depending on time of day and day of the week. Typically, the Family Court can entertain requests on Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and the local police department may accept the filing whenever the Family Court is closed.
It is critical to understand that a restraining order, while absolutely vital, is a civil complaint which is different from a criminal complaint. Both complaints can be filed for your protection since the civil complaint is designed to protect you and the criminal complaint is designed to punish the abuser. A survivor is not limited to choosing one or the other. In fact, the survivor may request a criminal complaint only, a restraining order only, or both.
When a survivor seeks a restraining order at the family court, a domestic violence court staff member will interview the survivor asking specific questions that pertain to the incident that had brought them to court, as well as about past incidents of domestic violence. It is important to provide as much detail as possible and as many prior incidents of violence as you may recall. After the interview, there will be a hearing with a domestic violence hearing officer or judge, all of which happen without any notification to the actor. If the restraining order is granted, the survivor will be issued a temporary restraining order (called a TRO) which will be served upon the actor, giving both parties a date for the final restraining order (FRO) hearing within 10 days. If the hearing officer does not recommend a TRO, the survivor is entitled to request to have the matter heard before a judge. Both parties, and any witnesses to the violence, need to appear on the scheduled day of the final hearing- letters are not enough.
If you or your loved one is surviving domestic violence, or has been accused of acts of domestic violence, contact us now for assistance. Call us now at 732-867-8894 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.