Domestic violence is a frequently committed crime. The FBI estimates that a woman is beaten every 18 seconds in the United States. The FBI also estimates that two million (others say possibly six million) women in the United States are abused annually. Some researchers believe that violence will occur in at least two-thirds of all marriages; that perhaps as many as 50 percent of women are battered at some time in their lives. The Surgeon General of the United States found that battering is the “single largest cause of injury to women.” No one knows precisely how often domestic violence occurs, or how many people are affected, because that information is hidden in divorce statistics, medical reports, school records, and police and government documents that disguise the information. Some domestic violence victims do not disclose the abuse they suffer to anyone. But it is clear that domestic violence is prevalent, and that it is a serious problem with tremendous social and economic costs and tragic consequences.
This handbook reviews the major provisions of New Jersey law regarding domestic violence and suggests some of the measures you can take to protect yourself from abuse, including using the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act to get a restraining order to keep the abuser away. Of course, as countless people have discovered, the law is not perfect and not all people obey the law. In addition to using the protection offered by the domestic violence law, you may have to use other services and means to insure your safety and peace of mind. You understand better than anyone how dangerous your situation is and must decide the best way to insure your safety.
Legal remedies and social services are available regardless of the gender of the abuser or the victim. In fact, the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act is written in what is called “sex-neutral” language. The law applies to everyone.
Prior to 1981, New Jersey had no specific law protecting victims of domestic violence. In 1981, when the New Jersey Legislature passed the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, it recognized that domestic violence is a serious crime affecting all of society and that it could no longer be ignored, excused, or tolerated. The Act has been amended many times to strengthen the protection offered to victims.
In 1996, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a national law addressing the problem of domestic violence and sexual assault against women. VAWA has a number of important and helpful provisions. For example, VAWA requires all states to enforce valid restraining orders from other states, allowing victims to keep their protective orders when they relocate. VAWA is an important first step in creating a comprehensive, nationwide response system to deal with domestic violence. The discussion of VAWA in this handbook will be limited to how VAWA can help battered immigrants and children apply for valid legal status without the cooperation of their abusers.
Most of the legal options explained in this handbook are those of the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. In New Jersey, there are two major legal options to gain protection from abuse:
- One option is to use the civil justice system to get a restraining order under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. A restraining order is a court order that will attempt to control the abuser’s behavior by forbidding him/her to enter your home or to contact you in any way. A restraining order can also contain provisions regarding child custody, child support, visitation, and support for you, among other things. How to get a civil restraining order is explained later in this publication.
- The second option is to charge the abuser with a crime, such as assault, and go through the criminal justice system. If the abuser is found guilty of the crime, s/he can be sentenced to jail or probation, and/or ordered to pay a fine. You can find information about the criminal law system later in this publication.
Domestic violence is not limited to physical or sexual abuse. It also includes emotional abuse. The following are some examples of common forms of emotional abuse that, depending on the surrounding circumstances, may be domestic violence.
- Harming a pet or threatening to harm a pet.
- Threatening to hurt or kill you or a member of your family.
- Threatening you to prevent you from leaving.
- Physically keeping you from leaving by doing such things as blocking a doorway, taking your car keys, or disabling your car.
- Forcing you to go somewhere against your will.
- Purposely or repeatedly following or stalking you by doing things such as staking out your home or place of employment.
- Coming to your home uninvited or after being told not to do so.
- Purposely or recklessly damaging your property or possessions by doing such things as punching holes in the walls, ripping up personal journals, tearing your clothing, or throwing things.
- Purposely and repeatedly annoying or alarming you by making hang-up calls, calling your home or place of employment, or deliberately preventing you from sleeping.
- Trying to control your daily activities, such as where you go, what you do, or who your friends are.
Under New Jersey’s domestic violence law, you may be able to get a restraining order if you were abused by your spouse, former spouse, boy/girl friend, a family member, gay or lesbian partner, roommate, caretaker, or a person with whom you had a child or who lives or has lived with you, or whom you have dated.
For most victims, attempting to leave an abusive partner involves risk, including the risk of being seriously injured. But those who stay can face increased abuse, which is one reason why thousands decide to leave abusive partners and start new lives. Because leaving an abusive partner can be dangerous, it requires careful thought and planning for safety measures, in addition to getting legal help. See the list of domestic violence service providers who can help you with safety planning.
This handbook touches on the most basic elements of the law and the services you may be able to receive. In addition to explaining your legal options, this handbook will highlight some of the support services available in New Jersey and explain how you can get more information about those services. At the end of the handbook, you will find the current addresses and phone numbers of shelters and other agencies that provide services or information to domestic violence victims and their families.
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Copyright © 2010 Legal Services of New Jersey
This information last reviewed 11/2/11