Each year in the United States, more than 10 million men and women suffer from domestic violence or abuse — and this figure sadly increased even further when the COVID-19 pandemic led many states to issue shelter-at-home orders. Domestic violence doesn’t just pose a physical threat, but can also impact victims’ (and witnesses’) mental and emotional health, even long after any threat has ended. What should you know about domestic violence, and what legal recourse do domestic violence survivors have?
What is domestic violence?
Domestic violence, or DV, is a broad term that encompasses threats of physical or sexual violence, the violent acts themselves, emotional or psychological abuse, financial abuse, and stalking. “Intimate partner violence” is a form of DV that happens between intimate partners — spouses, significant others, dating partners, and sexual partners.
Physical and sexual violence
Physical violence can include assault (hitting or kicking), strangulation, and any other violent physical contact between the abuser and the victim. Physical violence doesn’t need to be directed at the victim to be considered domestic violence or abuse — destroying the victim’s belongings, punching a hole in a wall, or breaking down a door can all constitute physical violence.
Sexual violence can include molestation, rape, and any other sexual act or attempt to obtain a sexual act using coercion or threats.
Emotional or psychological abuse
This type of domestic violence can be especially insidious, as it often escalates over time and is less apparent than physical or sexual abuse. Emotional abuse can include putdowns or name-calling, threats to expose a victim’s secrets to other loved ones, their employer, or the public, or “gaslighting” (telling the victim that their own perceptions or experiences are false). Emotional abusers can often isolate the victims from friends and family members who might otherwise be able to intervene.
Financial abuse can include withholding money from the victim, preventing the victim from getting a job, taking actions that cause the victim to get fired from a job (like threatening their boss or repeatedly showing up to their job site), or ruining the victim’s credit. These actions can restrict the abuse victim’s ability to leave the relationship.
What legal options do you have if you’re a victim of domestic violence?
Leaving a relationship that involves domestic violence can be incredibly difficult. Not only has the abuser often taken steps to financially and emotionally isolate the victim from those who could help them leave, but many have also wreaked havoc on the victim’s sense of self-worth. And when a victim does take steps to leave, the risk of threats and violence can often spike.
However, there are options available. Washington has some strong domestic violence prevention laws that are designed to help victims access services and get the court orders they need to ensure their abuser can no longer control them. Some legal options available to domestic violence victims include:
- Requesting a protection order (PO) from a local trial court. The PO will prevent the person who abused you from contacting you or being physically near you until the order is revoked. If you and your abuser are still living under the same roof, the PO can also remove the abuser from the home and require them to stay away for a specified period of time. (If the abuser needs to retrieve personal items from the home after the PO has been issued, they’ll need a sheriff’s deputy or other uniformed law enforcement officer to accompany them the entire time they’re at the residence.)
- If an abuser violates a PO, this is considered a crime — they can be arrested and criminally charged. Someone who has been found guilty of violating any order twice previously can face felony charges for any subsequent violation.
- Requesting a PO for your children. Domestic violence can impact everyone in the home, and even if your children weren’t victims of physical abuse, they can still qualify to have a PO issued to prevent the abuser from directly contacting them.
- Talking to a victim advocate. The Washington court systems employ domestic violence victim advocates to help victims navigate the process of escaping their abuser. Although these victim advocates don’t handle the intricacies of divorce or child custody proceedings, they can help point victims to resources (including attorneys) who can help.
A domestic violence victim who is being abused by their spouse can also petition for legal separation or file for divorce. These legal proceedings can proceed with or without a PO in place. On the other side of the coin, you don’t need to file for divorce even if you’ve sought a PO against your spouse — if you reach a point when you believe it’s safe to reconcile, the PO can be dismissed upon your request. When you meet with an attorney, you’ll want to learn as much as you can about your options so that you can make an informed decision on how to proceed.
Finally, it’s important to note that domestic violence can happen to anyone — and even if you’re not in the U.S. legally, you have legal rights when it comes to stopping domestic abuse. You don’t need to worry that seeking help will put your immigration status in jeopardy.