Domestic Violence FAQ: Basics, Safety Planning, and Restraining Orders

If you're experiencing domestic violence, you may have questions about how to recognize it, how to leave, and how to protect yourself and your loved ones. Understanding the most critical elements of domestic abuse can help you find safety and address the violence. Support, resources, and legal remedies are also available.

Domestic violence often goes unreported and unnoticed. It is a serious offense that can leave emotional (as well as physical) scars that last a lifetime.

This article answers commonly asked questions about:

Domestic Violence Basics FAQ

A person's home should be a safe space, defined by the love and support of family members. But sadly, home is a place of fear and violence for many. 

The following section answers frequently asked questions about the basics of domestic violence.

Q: What is domestic violence?

Domestic violence, or family violence, can occur in a single incident. However, domestic violence usually takes place in a pattern of abusive behavior in a relationship. It is most often used by one intimate partner to exert control over another intimate partner. State definitions of domestic violence and who represents a qualifying household member may vary. Therefore, a qualifying household member may include a current or former spouse, current or former live-in partner, sibling, child, or other relative.

Domestic violence can take many forms, including:

  • Physical abuse (physical harm or threats of physical harm)
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Economic abuse
  • Psychological abuse
  • Stalking (in person, unwanted phone calls, harassment)
  • Cyberstalking (email, text messages, social media)

Q: What can I do to stop an abuser?

You can pursue a criminal domestic violence charge and cooperate with police and prosecutors. This way, your abuser is held accountable for the violence. You can also seek a protection order or restraining order during the criminal case.

Domestic violence cases can be classified as a misdemeanor or a felony based on the circumstances of the case and state law. Misdemeanors usually subject an offender to possible local jail time. Felonies can subject an offender to time in state prison. For example, in Ohio, a prior criminal record of domestic violence will enhance the offense to a felony and expose the offender to a state prison sentence.

In a criminal case, the state brings the criminal charges, and the offender is called the defendant. The state is represented by the prosecutor. The criminal defense attorney represents the defendant.

You can also go to civil court and request a protection or restraining order, which requires your abuser to stay a certain number of feet away from you, your home, your school, your work, and your car. This might not immediately restrain an abuser from stalking or hurting you, but it does allow you to call upon law enforcement authorities to have the abuser arrested if they break the restraining or protection order and come near you.

You may also address other matters in the court order such as:

  • Exclusive residence use
  • Custody and parenting time for children
  • Child support

In civil court, you file as the petitioner, and the offender is called the respondent.

You can obtain a restraining order by filing the required legal papers with your local court. Note that the term "restraining order" and "order of protection" may be used interchangeably in this article. Some states identify this as a Civil Protection Order (CPO).

You will need to follow your specific state law requirements for requesting an "ex parte" protection order hearing. This is a hearing without the other party present. If the court grants the protection or restraining order, you will then serve the abuser with a copy of the order. The court will schedule a full hearing later with notice to both parties.

The court normally will assign service of the order to the police or another law enforcement agency. A Civil Protection Order may extend for years, beyond the life of the criminal case.

Q: How do I know I am in an abusive relationship?

Many behaviors may occur in a relationship involving domestic abuse. Common conduct includes:

  • Jealous and controlling behavior
  • Minimization of harm or responsibility for domestic violence incidents
  • Verbal abuse, including insults and put-downs
  • Control over finances (victim needs permission to get money)
  • Isolation (abuser controls the victim's schedule and interactions with others)

Q: Where can I get help if I'm experiencing domestic violence?

You are not alone. Many organizations can assist you. During a domestic violence incident or immediately after, you should call 911 or the local police department. Local domestic violence agencies provide support and advocacy. You can also seek counseling and shelter through the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). They may also assist you with safety planning so you can avoid further abuse.

You may contact a local legal aid agency that can help with protection or restraining orders. You may also seek legal advice from a family law attorney. You may contact your doctor, local hospital, or clergy.

Q: Do I have to report domestic violence?

No, unless you're a mandated reporter, which is a person who is required to report child or certain adult abuse because of their profession. Doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, and daycare providers are often mandated reporters. You should check the law in your state to learn whether you're considered a mandatory reporter. In some states, such as Texas, everyone must report child abuse.

If the victim is under 18 years old, child abuse mandatory reporting laws apply. If you are a mandated reporter and the victim of domestic violence is a child, you must report.

If you're a victim of domestic violence, you don't have to report what happened to you. However, it's probably in your best interests to do so. In addition, you may want to report domestic abuse once you're able to leave the relationship. On average, it takes a survivor seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship permanently, so don't be discouraged if you've tried leaving but returned.

Q: Can I file a domestic violence lawsuit against my abuser?

Yes. As a victim of domestic violence, you can sue the person you have accused of domestic violence for your injuries in civil court, even if you've gone through criminal proceedings and lost. Some states may still provide restrictions when suing a family member for assault, battery, or other torts. Make sure you check the laws of your state regarding such lawsuits.

All states have statutes of limitations (time limits) for filing claims, so you should seek legal advice as soon as possible.

Q: Can men be victims of domestic violence?

Absolutely. Anyone can be a victim of domestic violence, including men. Men, women, children, teens, and people of every race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and socioeconomic background can experience domestic violence. Domestic violence laws apply equally to all persons. However, the specific terms defining a qualifying household member (e.g. spouse, live-in partner, etc.) may vary from state to state.

Q: Where can I get help as a victim of sexual abuse?

First, you must decide which people you're comfortable with telling what happened. Then, you have to decide whether you want to pursue legal action, including criminal charges or a civil lawsuit. If you want to talk about what happened, even if it was many years ago, call the national sexual assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or seek counseling in your area.

Safety Planning and Leaving an Abusive Relationship FAQ

Leaving an abusive relationship is not as simple as walking out the door. There may be emotional attachments and feelings of love or dependency for the abuser. Additionally, abusers use manipulation, intimidation, and threats to prevent victims from leaving. Having children can complicate leaving even further.

Other barriers that keep victims from leaving abusive relationships include:

  • Financial dependence
  • Lack of support networks
  • Concerns about the safety of loved ones, especially children

Everyone deserves freedom from domestic violence. The following section answers questions about safety planning and leaving a violent relationship.

Q: I'm thinking of leaving an abusive relationship. Where do I start?

First, plan for your safety. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Or contact your local domestic violence outreach organization to learn more about creating a safety plan. You can also discuss how to approach a friend about your concerns regarding their abusive relationship. There are a number of resources that support victims of intimate partner domestic violence.

Educate yourself about domestic violence and its many forms. Domestic abuse can include:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Financial abuse
  • Psychological abuse

Not every form amounts to a crime. Finding out that you are not alone can also help. Advocacy organizations can direct you to a domestic violence support group.

Q: I'm afraid to contact the police. What happens if I call?

In any emergency, call 911 for immediate assistance. Police, EMS, and other first responders can stop an offender and treat injuries. If someone is hurting or threatening you or a loved one, this is the first step in stopping family violence. Police can separate the abuser from the victim and other household members.

The arrival of law enforcement officers has potential consequences for your abuser. This can include arrest and criminal charges. A criminal case is just the beginning of the criminal justice system's response. A conviction for domestic violence may lead to jail time for an abuser. If the abuser is in the country illegally, it can lead to deportation.

If you are a victim of domestic violence and not a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident (LPR), you may be eligible to file for a domestic violence green card.

It's important to keep in mind it was the abuser who engaged in the act of domestic violence. Victims call the police because they need to stop the violence and gain protection from the abuser. Most police officers and prosecutors want to hold violent offenders accountable for their crimes. They will seek your cooperation and take steps to make sure you can provide input at each stage of the case.

Staying in contact with the police can be important. In domestic violence cases, abusers often try to contact victims after an incident and try to influence them. Follow-ups by law enforcement can provide ongoing safety to you and your family.

If you do call the police and they respond inappropriately, you may be able to take steps to address such conduct. You can consult with your local domestic violence agency or seek legal advice. Most police departments have a citizen complaint process you can access in such situations.

Q: My abuser's defense attorney is calling me. What should I do?

If criminal charges are pending, the defense attorney will engage in a process called “discovery" to help understand the case and defend their client. If the defense attorney contacts you, you can decide how or whether to respond. If you need more information on your options, you can seek legal advice from an experienced family law attorney.

Q: I'm not safe at home. Where can I go?

If you need to leave a home you share with your abuser immediately, you can call a local domestic violence agency. They can give you information about how to enter the local domestic violence shelter or about confidential programs for safe lodging. Shelters are often full, and you may have to leave your area to find a safe and confidential place elsewhere. As most domestic violence victims are women, many emergency shelters may be designated for single women or women with children.

Q: I'm still hurting or injured from abuse. What can I do?

Whether you made a police report or not when the abuse happened, you should seek medical treatment from a healthcare provider. Medical professionals engage in training to help identify and assist violence victims.

Certain injuries from a domestic violence attack may not immediately appear. For example, a victim states her abuser "choked" her during a fight in their home. Although there were no signs besides some redness after the attack, she now has bruises and trouble speaking. Healthcare providers follow important protocols to protect a victim's health after a strangulation incident. Serious and sometimes fatal outcomes may occur days later if the victim does not seek treatment.

Your health is vitally important to your quality of life and the lives of the people who depend on you. Medical professionals can also provide referrals to social services and victim outreach programs to help you with safety planning.

Q: I've left my abuser. What can I do to stop them from coming after me?

protection order or temporary restraining order is a great legal option that can help to stop domestic violence. This is a court order that says your abuser cannot contact you or come near you, your home, your car, your work, or your school. In certain circumstances, a civil protection order may also permit the court to order child support or spousal support from your abuser.

A protection order doesn't prevent an abuser from stalking or attacking you. However, the mere existence of a protection order tends to increase the urgency in the police response to a victim's 911 call. In most states, police follow pro-arrest or preferred arrest policies for such calls. The elements of the crime of violating a protection order are also easier to demonstrate and prove in court.

States also have different types of protection orders for victims of domestic violence. If a criminal case is pending, the criminal court can issue a protection order that will last until the case ends. If there is no criminal case, or even while a criminal case is pending, a victim can seek a civil domestic protection order that can last for years. In other words, this type of protection order can continue after the end of the criminal case.

Protection orders are not only issued for spouses and former spouses. A victim in a dating relationship who has experienced violence can also seek a protection order.

The following section covers FAQ specific to protection or restraining orders.

Domestic Violence Protection or Restraining Orders FAQ

Domestic violence is often defined as a pattern of behavior in which a person acts abusively toward an intimate partner. However, domestic violence can happen in just one incident. The relationship between the victim of domestic violence and the abuser may also involve other family and household members. 

Many victims promptly seek a protection order or restraining order to stop the violence. The order can also provide a separation of the parties. State laws vary on the elements of a domestic violence crime. They also vary in court standards for obtaining a protection order or restraining order in domestic violence cases.

Q: What is a domestic violence protection or restraining order?

Domestic Violence Protection or Restraining Order (DVPO) is an order issued by a court that applies to a person identified as an abuser. Protection orders prohibit the abuser from engaging in certain behaviors and activities against the victim.

Courts may have protection orders uniquely tailored to the type of abuse alleged. This section of questions focuses on domestic violence protection orders. However, most states also allow for protection orders in situations that do not involve family or household members. This includes sex offenses, stalking offenses, and other crimes of violence.

Courts look at the alleged abuser's conduct when reviewing requests for a domestic violence protection order. Is there threatened or actual physical injury? Did the victim fear for their safety or the safety of their loved one? Is there evidence of immediate danger? Financial, emotional, and psychological abuse allegations alone may not provide such evidence. But a court can include these non-physical forms of abuse to determine what to address in a protection order.

Q: Who can file for a protection order or restraining order?

Each state's law will set out specific requirements on who can file for a protection or restraining order. Generally, the victim must be an intimate partner or other family or household member of the abuser. These parties can file a request for a domestic violence protection order. An intimate partner includes a:

  • Spouse
  • Former spouse
  • Person living as a spouse, such as a live-in domestic partner

This includes persons in opposite-sex and same-sex relationships.

Other family or household members may also request an order. This includes parties with a child in common, even if they have never lived together. Children, stepchildren, and other family members related by blood or marriage may also seek a protection order.

In some states, the domestic violence protection order law will also cover situations such as dating violence. Dating violence occurs when parties in an intimate relationship may not have children and may not live together.

Parents or other relatives may also request a domestic violence protection order or restraining order. In some states, minor children can also petition a court for a protection order. Minor children will need the assistance of a responsible adult such as a grandparent. Immigrants (regardless of legal status) may apply for a domestic violence protection order. Courts will provide language interpretation services as needed.

Q: What does a protection order provide?

A domestic violence protection order is a court order. It may provide no contact from the abuser and other forms of relief. For example, a protection order may include the following provisions:

  • Requiring the alleged abuser to move out of the home or residence; the abuser cannot interfere with utilities, phone service, or delivery and mail service; they must surrender keys and garage door openers
  • Prohibiting the alleged abuser or someone they direct from contacting the victim or other household members; this includes contact by telephone, mail, email, text message, and social media.
  • Mandating that an alleged abuser or someone they direct stay away and remain a certain amount of distance from the victim at all times (e.g., 500 feet). This includes a place of residence, school, place of work, place of worship, child care or daycare center, etc.
  • Prohibiting the alleged abuser from possessing a firearm, ammunition, or other deadly weapon; requiring that such weapons be turned over to police within a certain number of business days
  • Prohibiting the alleged abuser from using or placing a device for the purpose of electronic surveillance on the victim
  • Requiring the alleged abuser to surrender motor vehicle(s) keys to police within a certain time
  • Prohibiting the use of alcohol or illegal drugs by the alleged abuser
  • Requiring the alleged abuser to provide child support or spousal support
  • Prohibiting the alleged abuser from removing, hiding, or destroying the victim's personal property items. This includes animals or pets
  • Requiring the alleged abuser to attend a counseling or batterer's intervention program

A protection order's terms are normally based on the victim's complaint. The order may speak only to matters raised in the court hearing itself. Victim advocates and service providers remind victims daily that a protection order is just a piece of paper. Victims should also engage in safety planning in case the abuser chooses to violate the protection order.

Q: What happens if my abuser violates the protection order?

In most states, violating a domestic violence protection order represents a new criminal offense. The new offense may be pursued as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances. Violating a protection order may also be pursued with a contempt of court. In criminal cases, a violation may also be the basis for a motion to revoke the bail or bond of the defendant. This could mean your abuser returns to jail while the criminal case proceeds.

Q: Are there different types of protection orders?

Yes. The court may issue different kinds of protective orders. This will depend on the specifics of a person's situation. The main types of restraining orders are:

Emergency Domestic Violence Protective Orders (EPO)

This is an emergency protective order or restraining order issued by the police. A victim may file an EPO when they cannot petition a court right away. This could happen if the court is not open or there is imminent harm. An EPO generally expires in a matter of days. Not all states provide for Emergency Domestic Violence Protective Orders.

Temporary Domestic Violence Protection Orders (TPO)

This type of protection order may occur in a criminal case or a civil case.

In a criminal case, the victim or law enforcement may file the request with the clerk of court. The court may issue a temporary restraining order after a brief court hearing around the time of the criminal defendant's arraignment. The court conducts the hearing based on the charges and information or testimony provided by the police department, the victim, or the defendant.

Law enforcement will serve the defendant if the court finds good cause and issues the order. A criminal case temporary order lasts only as long as the criminal case. The court may modify the order or terminate the order at any time during the case, up to the case's dismissal or the defendant's sentencing.

In a civil case, a victim (usually called the petitioner) files for the protection order in person at the clerk's office. They will also request an ex parte court hearing where only the victim presents testimony that same day. If the court finds good cause supporting the domestic violence claim, the court issues an ex parte temporary protection order. The court also directs local law enforcement to serve the order and other court papers on the offender (usually called the respondent).

The court then schedules a court date for a full hearing, providing notice to both parties. Once it has been served on the respondent, the ex parte temporary protection order will remain in effect until the outcome of the full hearing.

Domestic Violence Protection Order (DVPO)

This type of protection order represents a final civil protection order issued after the full hearing discussed above. At the full hearing, both parties may testify and offer evidence. If the court finds good cause supporting the domestic violence claim and grants the order, then the court sets forth the terms of the order and has law enforcement serve the parties. The court may modify the terms of its temporary protection order.

For example, the court may change the custody order or details of the parenting time schedule. A final hearing civil domestic violence protection order may last for several years. It may be renewed upon request of the petitioner. Terminating a criminal case will not affect the status of this order.

A person who violates any one of these orders may be subject to civil or criminal penalties, including fines or incarceration.

How can I get a protection order?

Where you should apply for a domestic violence protection order may vary depending on the state or county you live in. Generally, you file a request at a local courthouse. Sometimes, specific courts—such as a family court—may be the more appropriate place to apply for a protection order. In most states, the clerk's office or court staff will not charge any costs for the action.

You may at any time call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for a referral to victim service providers in your area. If you are facing immediate physical harm, you should contact the police and call 911. You may also let an attorney assist you. You can also contact a legal aid attorney or a family law attorney familiar with seeking a domestic violence protective order.

Q: Does a protection order remain active if I leave the state?

Yes. Federal law requires that each state provide Full Faith and Credit to a protection order issued in another state. It is a federal crime for an abuser to cross state lines to commit domestic violence or to violate a protection order. Federal law also prohibits an abuser who has been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor offense of domestic violence from having a firearm (gun).

If you believe an abuser has followed you to another state to commit abuse, you can explain this circumstance to law enforcement. If you are concerned that the abuser owns a gun or has access to firearms, provide this information as well. Besides any state offenses, they may refer your case to the U.S. Department of Justice for any possible federal offenses.

Get an Attorney's Help With Domestic Violence

If you're experiencing domestic violence, you can also seek legal help. It's important that you take action to make sure you're safe and can heal. Consider working with a family law attorney. They can discuss and explain legal processes and options that help you leave your abuser.

Was this helpful?

Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Victims of domestic violence can press charges against their abuser
  • The ability or requirements to press charges varies in each state
  • Contacting a family law attorney or advocacy groups for advice is essential

Some attorneys represent victims of domestic violence. Others defend the rights of those accused of domestic abuse or other related crimes. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

Find a local attorney