What exactly is meant by the term Domestic Violence?

When most people hear the term “domestic violence,” they often assume some physical abuse is occurring.  According to experts, domestic violence is measured by fear and not just physical violence. It is perhaps best understood as any abusive behavior that occurs within the home, whether the abuse is physical, emotional, psychological, financial, or even sexual abuse. Often, the abuse is a combination of two or more of these factors.  The abuse can be verbal abuse in the form of humiliation, controlling behavior, withholding of finances, isolation, belittling behavior, and unwarranted criticism. Domestic violence can escalate into the threat of violence and intimidation, or it can cross into physical abuse, sexual abuse, or in extreme cases, rape.  The abuse can be against a spouse, a domestic partner, a child or other family member, or any other person in the household.  In each instance, however, the abuse involves intentional behavior on the perpetrator’s part as a way of exercising power and control over the victim.

Who Most Often Experiences Domestic Violence?

Anyone who lives in a household with others can become a victim of domestic violence.  Domestic violence is not limited by race, religion, gender, sexuality, geography, or socioeconomic status. Domestic violence has been experienced by people who are wealthy and who are impoverished, by people who live in urban and suburban, and rural areas, by males and females, or by older, middle-aged, and young people. Estimates indicate that about one in four women will experience domestic violence sometime during their lives. Victims of domestic violence often experience feelings of isolation and shame.  As a result, victims tend not to report it. This then allows the cycle of violence to continue.

What Can Courts Do to Protect Someone from Domestic Violence?

If someone is a victim of domestic violence in Maryland, they can seek help from Maryland Courts by filing a Petition for a Protective Order or filing criminal charges against the abuser. When seeking a protective order, for example, the person files a document called a Petition. The Petition will advise the Court about the specific abusive behavior from which the victim is seeking protection. The Petition will also request the court to enter an Order compelling the abuser to stop the behavior.  If the Court is satisfied that an Order is warranted, the Court will issue an Order that states that the abuser must refrain from further abuse against the victim.  Normally, it also orders the abuser to stay away from the victim’s residence and may require them to move out of a shared home. The abuser will be subject to other requirements, such as staying away from the victim’s workplace or school and turning in all firearms to law enforcement. Any violation of this order by the offender will result in arrest and possible incarceration.

What Qualifies as a Domestic Relationship?

Most states have a process for obtaining an order of protection from an abuser, and each state defines what constitutes a domestic relationship in that state.  In the State of Maryland, for a person to be eligible to file a Petition for a Protective Order, that person must be in a sexual relationship with the abuser, such as a current or former spouse, a cohabitant, a person related to the abuser by blood, marriage, or adoption, or any of the relationships enumerated in Md. FAMILY LAW Code Ann. § 4-501.  If you are experiencing abuse or harassment from someone you are not related to or are having a sexual relationship with, you may still get relief from the court by filing a Petition for a Peace Order, which offers similar protections to a Protective Order.

How Can I Get an Order of Protection?

To file a Petition for a Protective Order in Maryland, a person needs to go to a District or Circuit Courthouse in the County in which they live, fill out the Petition, and have a brief hearing before a judge (or after regular hours, a commissioner), who then determines whether to issue a Temporary Order. Once a Temporary Order is secured and served, it goes into effect, and a hearing is set for a Final Protective Order.  Both parties will have an opportunity to present their case to the Court at the Final Protective Order hearing.  A domestic violence victim and the person against whom the Petition has been filed may represent themselves in this matter.  At the same time, either or both parties may want to hire an experienced domestic violence lawyer to assist in this hearing.

How Does Domestic Violence Affect Child Custody?

Many victims of domestic violence are also parents. Sometimes the abuse is also against the children. Securing a Protective Order often triggers questions regarding child custody.  In some cases, children may be included on the Protective Order. However, there is often a separate test of whether children should be included in the order of protection. Simply because domestic violence occurred in the home does not necessarily mean that the abuser will be prohibited from seeing their children.  The victim may have to establish that the children were also abused, witnessed the abuse, or are directly in danger if the parent is allowed around them.  When making decisions regarding child custody, the court examines the parents’ fitness to decide what the best interests of the child or children are. The Judge will also review the history of domestic violence between the parties in making this determination. Domestic violence can negatively impact children, including their ability to develop healthy relationships, academics, and health.

Where Can I Go for Help?

If you are a victim of domestic violence, you need help to make the violence end.  In many communities, governmental, religious, and other non-profit organizations can assist victims of domestic violence.  The Courts can also assist by issuing and enforcing a Protective Order.  A victim of domestic violence can visit a court in Maryland and file a petition for a protective order at any time.  If the person is not familiar with the legal process or is uncomfortable with going it alone, an experienced domestic violence lawyer can assist the person by explaining the legal options that are available and provide representation in court proceedings.  No one should be a victim of domestic violence.  If you find yourself in this unfortunate situation, it is important to take the legal steps necessary to stop the abuser from continuing the abuse.