Domestic Violence: Legal Recourse and Compensation Guide

Help is available for victims of domestic abuse. Here’s what you need to know about abuse laws, restraining orders, and domestic violence compensation.

More than 12 million men and women are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner every year. That’s an average of 24 victims of domestic violence every minute. ¹

Domestic violence, also called Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is generally described as abuse within a partner relationship where one partner asserts control and power over another.

An abusive intimate partner causes more than half of all violent victimization reported to law enforcement, yet domestic violence is highly underreported. Many victims are afraid to report their abuser. ²

Domestic violence occurs in every kind of partnership, from marriages to dating relationships. Victims are male, female, lesbian, gay, or bi-sexual. Intimate partner violence occurs in every income bracket and every ethnic or racial group.

Help is available for victims of domestic violence, including emergency shelters, legal assistance, safety planning, and protection orders.

Forms of Domestic Abuse and Partner Violence

Intimate partner violence comes in many forms, from broken bones to psychological battering. The most common categories of domestic violence include:

  • Physical Abuse
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Emotional Abuse
  • Isolation
  • Verbal Abuse
  • Economic Abuse
  • Stalking

Physical abuse: Hitting, slapping, burning, hair pulling, choking, and painful twisting of fingers and arms are examples of the many types of physical violence.

Sexual abuse: Includes forced intercourse or other sexual acts, rape, making the partner engage in sexual activities that are distasteful or psychologically uncomfortable, forcing the victim to view pornography or pose for pornographic photos, and coerced sex with other people for any reason.

Emotional abuse: Abusers may refuse to call their partners by name, instead referring to them in words and terms meant to belittle or embarrass them. This can include public humiliation, threatening harm or suicide, manipulation, blaming, and any other statements meant to create confusion and insecurity in the victim.

Isolation: Abusers isolate their targets as a means of control, to prevent them from seeking advice, shelter, and financial assistance from friends and family members; to keep their partners from looking for legal advice, and to prevent their partners from gaining access to domestic violence help organizations.

Verbal abuse: Name calling, yelling, screaming, threatening the victims or their children or pets, and constant criticism of the partner’s appearance or skills.

Economic abuse: Withholding and controlling money are forms of manipulation abusers use to keep their partners from trying to leave the abusive environment, from seeking legal advice, and from purchasing items the abuser doesn’t expressly authorize.

Stalking: Stalking is a form of terrorism that can happen during dating, within a relationship, or after the relationship has ended. The abuser may follow the victim to work, the store, the gym, to doctors’ appointments, to visits with friends or family, or school functions.

State and Federal Domestic Violence Laws

Victims of domestic violence are protected under state and federal laws. Also, abuse victims may seek additional protections and compensation through both criminal and civil courts.

For example, your partner may be convicted of aggravated assault in criminal court for beating you, and you can also file an injury lawsuit against the abuser to recover your medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

The Violence Against Women Act

The federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) became law to support the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women. VAWA imposes automatic and mandatory restitution on convicted abusers and allows victims to seek compensation through civil lawsuits even when the abuser wasn’t convicted on criminal charges.

The Violence Against Women Act has fostered a strong community response to domestic violence, sex dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. The act has been expanded to cover the needs of all domestic violence victims, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Since VAWA went into effect, state and local courts, police, prosecutors, and victim services work together to protect and support abuse victims as never before.

Services provided to abuse victims include:

  • Free rape exams
  • No charge for the prosecution of the abuser
  • No charge for restraining orders in domestic violence situations
  • Legal aid for survivors of violence
  • Protections for victims who are evicted from their homes because of events related to domestic violence or stalking

Family Violence Prevention and Services Act

The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) provides funding to help victims of domestic violence and their children with direct assistance for shelter and related services, violence prevention programs, and guidance to domestic abuse service agencies throughout the United States.

FVPSA is directly responsible for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, where abuse victims can seek confidential help day or night.

State Laws Protecting Abuse Survivors

Every state has different laws that can help a victim of domestic violence, including the areas of:

  • Restraining orders
  • Custody
  • Child support
  • Parental kidnapping
  • Divorce
  • Housing protection for victims of domestic violence
  • Suing an abuser for damages

Calling Police for Domestic Abuse

When you call 911 to report abuse, the police must respond. What happens after that depends on what you tell them, and the extent of your injuries.

When the police arrive, they should talk to you where you can speak outside of your partner’s range of hearing and sight. For example, they may have you stay in the house while one of the officers takes your partner outside.

If you are visibly hurt, especially if you’re badly injured, your partner will be arrested on the spot, even if you tell the police you don’t want to bring charges. They won’t risk leaving you with an abuser who may continue to harm, or even kill you.

What you say to the police is important and can be used as evidence. Review their written notes to be sure they correctly wrote what happened.

If the incident with your partner did not cause injuries, like pushing or slapping, the officers might not arrest your partner unless you ask. Tell the police if the abuser has ever slapped or pushed you around before, has threatened you or your children with harm, and if your partner has been previously charged with domestic violence.

Once arrested, the abuser may be offered bail. Ask for the judge to issue a restraining order to keep the abuser away from you until the court hearing.

Restraining Orders are Free

Protection orders, commonly called restraining orders, are meant to protect a domestic violence victim from further contact with the abuser. Under federal law, all restraining orders are free.

If the abuser violates a restraining order, they can be arrested and face criminal charges.

Depending on your location, you may be able to get restraining orders that force the abuser to get out of your shared home, allow you to have sole custody of your children, and make the abuser responsible for court costs.

With a restraining order, the abuser won’t be allowed to come to your home, your family member’s homes, or your job.

Common types of restraining orders include:

  • Emergency restraining order: The police may issue this if you are in immediate danger and to give you a few days to get to the courthouse to ask for a more permanent restraining order.
  • Temporary restraining order: Issued by a judge, a temporary restraining order usually lasts for about two weeks. The order is intended to protect you until your case goes to court.
  • No-contact order: A judge may issue this if the abuser is facing criminal charges or has been convicted of criminal abuse. A no-contact order can be issued for any length of time and means the abuser may not have any contact with you.
  • Domestic violence restraining order: A domestic violence restraining order lasts longer than emergency or temporary restraining orders, possibly for several years. The judge usually issues it after your court hearing about the abuse.

Criminal Penalties for Domestic Violence

While all domestic violence is serious, domestic abuse crimes are divided into two categories. More severe acts of domestic violence are felonies, while others are misdemeanors. The investigating police officers determine the initial level of violence and file charges accordingly.

Each police department has its criteria for determining whether an assault has occurred and whether it rose to the level of a felonious assault.

In all determinations of assault, the police immediately arrest and remove the abuser from the home, pending arraignment before the local court.

Misdemeanor assaults carry a punishment of incarceration in the local county or city jail for a year or less. In some cases, the abuser is eligible for probation or dismissal, so long as the abuser agrees to meet certain requirements, such as paying for restitution, completing an anger management program, and obeying a restraining order.

Felony assaults carry a punishment of incarceration exceeding one year in state prison. While some states make felony abusers eligible to have their cases dismissed much like the misdemeanor process, many state prosecutors refuse to agree to dismiss the abuser’s felony charge, regardless of the abuser’s repentance or agreement to seek help.

Learn more about Crime Victim Rights and Compensation available to domestic violence survivors.

When to Hire an Attorney

Prosecutors, also called assistant district or county attorneys, work for the state. Their clients are exclusively the people of their state who are victims of crime.

The prosecutor’s job is to do everything legally and ethically possible to protect the victim’s safety and well-being. When possible and just, the prosecutor petitions the court to have the convicted abuser incarcerated for the maximum term the law permits.

At a minimum, the prosecutor asks the court to order, as a condition of probation, that the abuser have no contact with the victim, or the victim’s family, friends, co-workers, and employer.

You won’t need an attorney to represent you when your partner is facing criminal abuse charges. In criminal cases, the prosecutor represents the people of the city, county, or state and, specifically in this case, you, the victim.

To file a civil action for injury compensation, divorce, or for financial support, you will probably need to retain a private attorney.

Most attorneys will accept personal injury cases on a contingency fee basis, meaning they will get paid out of the lump sum of money they win for their client. Unless the abuser has insurance funds or financial assets to pursue, an attorney won’t be able to take your case unless you are prepared to pay their fees by the hour.

If you can’t afford to hire a private attorney, you can often get help through agencies that serve domestic violence victims. You may be referred to the local legal aid office, attorneys who offer pro bono (free) services to abuse survivors, or the attorney general’s office.

Domestic Violence Hotlines and Helpful Links

National Domestic Violence Hotline
Hotline: 800.799.SAFE
Through this hotline, an advocate can provide local direct service resources (safehouse shelters, transportation, casework assistance) and crisis intervention.

National Teen Dating Abuse Online Helpline
Assists teens who are, or may be, in abusive relationships.

Pathways to Safety International
Serves abuse victims in both civilian and military populations overseas. Assists victims with relocation, emergency funds for housing and childcare, and payment of legal fees.

National Child Abuse Hotline
1-800-422-4453

National Sexual Assault Hotline
1-800-656-4673 [24/7 hotline]

Women’s Law
Legal information for victims of abuse, including information on protective orders

Office for Victims of Crime, Directory of Crime Victim Services
Offers links to programs and services available to crime victims

VictimConnect
National Hotline for Crime Victims
1-855-4-VICTIM (1-855-484-2846)

National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards
Links to every state’s compensation program

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Domestic Violence Questions & Answers