The Alliance has compiled a number of resources available for survivors, their friends and families, and professionals assisting survivors in New York City.

Factsheets: Domestic Violence and the Law


Domestic violence has traditionally been defined as violence in the home, or between family members. As society's definition of family has changed, so has the law's definition of family violence. While some states cling to the traditional view of domestic violence as between spouses or former spouses, increasingly legislatures are expanding the scope of the law to include children, relatives, unmarried persons living together, persons with a child in common, and even those in an "intimate relationship." (All statutes discussed in this summary are current through 1995 unless otherwise indicated. Source: National Center for Victims of Crime, Legislative Database.)

In general, state domestic violence laws prohibit physical abuse and threatened or attempted physical abuse. Many domestic violence laws also bar sexual assault or abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, or even financial exploitation.

Police have been given a more specific role in combating domestic violence in recent years. Frequently, police are required to arrest offenders if they have strong reason to believe that there has been physical abuse. In some states, if police fail to arrest an offender, they are required to file a written report stating their reasons for declining to arrest. Police are typically required to inform victims of their legal rights, to enforce protective orders, and to use all means to prevent abuse. They may also be required to transport the victim to a medical facility or shelter. Police are often required to explain the procedures for obtaining a protective order to the victim, which may include giving the victim a written pamphlet outlining the procedures.

Protective Orders

The standard method of redress for domestic violence victims is obtaining a protective order. These may be short-term, emergency protective orders, or longer term orders issued after a hearing. An emergency protective order in most cases is only issued where the applicant can show that there is a danger of immediate harm unless an order is issued. Such an order ordinarily is valid for only a few days, until a contested hearing can be held. After a hearing, the court may issue a longer term protective order.

A protective order may provide such relief as:
  • Prohibiting further abuse;
  • Prohibiting contact with the victim;
  • Excluding the offender from the victim's home and/or place of work or school;
  • Payment by the offender of spousal support, child support, monetary compensation, or payment for alternative housing for the victim; and/or
  • Various other forms of relief.

Offenders may be required to participate in counseling, either as part of a protective order or as part of a pretrial diversion program. Successful completion of the counseling program in many states results in the charges against the offender being dropped.

Protective orders in some states are valid only for three months, although the court may be permitted to extend the order if the circumstances warrant. In other states, an order is valid for up to three years.

States enforce their protective orders in a variety of ways, whether by treating a violation of an order as civil or criminal contempt of court, or as a separate felony or misdemeanor. In some states, police are required to arrest an offender if they have reason to believe a protective order has been violated. The law often provides a means for police to verify whether a protective order is in effect. In a number of states, the victim is given a certified copy of the protective order, and another copy of the order is sent to law enforcement.

Protection From Intimidation

State legislatures are becoming increasingly aware of the great potential for victim intimidation posed in cases of domestic violence, and are passing laws to deal with this intimidation. In Rhode Island, a judge is required to make clear to the victim and defendant that prosecution of the domestic violence action is determined by the prosecutor, not the victim. In Texas, a prosecutor's decision whether to file an application for a protective order must be made without considering whether a criminal complaint has been filed by the applicant (Novello, 1992). Also, in many states, the location of domestic violence shelters is confidential and need not be disclosed, even in court. Arizona imposes a $1,000 civil penalty for the disclosure of information which could identify the location of a shelter. Similarly, the address of the victim is confidential in many states.

As of 1993, all states and the District of Columbia had passed "stalking" laws in an attempt to protect victims, usually women, who are followed, harassed, and threatened over a period of time, often by ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends. In an attempt to assist victims from being stalked by protecting their anonymity, some states, like Pennsylvania, are giving individuals who have been the victims of domestic violence and stalking behavior the option of blocking their phone numbers from being revealed through the popular "caller identification" services. Other states are limiting the release of information from voter registration and department of motor vehicles records. (This trend in tightening disclosure policies concerning these records follows the passage of the Driver Protection Act as incorporated in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.)

Many states also consider the communications between a victim and a domestic abuse counselor privileged. There may be exceptions where the counselor learns that a child is being abused, or where the court orders disclosure in a particular case.

Recent Trends

The law in the area of domestic violence has been expanding in recent years. In a growing number of states, courts must consider any past history of domestic violence in a family when making custody and visitation determinations. More and more often, domestic violence offenders are being prohibited by statute from owning or possessing firearms.

Training for law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges in issues of special concern to domestic violence victims is becoming more prevalent, while medical and mental health professionals are being taught to detect signs of abuse and make appropriate referrals.

Some jurisdictions are using technology to assist domestic violence victims, including providing victims with cell phones to call 911 or other alarm systems to summon help. Many courts are also ordering electronic monitoring of batterers while on bail release or post-conviction release.

Funding for services and counseling for domestic violence victims is another area which has been receiving attention. In California, offenders can be ordered to contribute up to $1,000 to a battered women's shelter. A number of states routinely require the payment of restitution by the offender to cover the cost of mental health counseling incurred by a victim of domestic abuse. Some states even assess an additional marriage license fee which is designated to fund domestic violence programs.

For information on the domestic violence laws in your area, contact your local prosecutor's office, your state Attorney General's office, or your local law library.


American Medical Association. (1991). "Domestic Violence: No Longer a Family Secret." Five Issues in American Health. Chicago, IL: American Medical Association.

American Medical Association, Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs. (1992). "Physicians and Domestic Violence: Ethical Considerations." Journal of the American Medical Association, 267(23): 3190-3193.

Attorney General's Family Violence Task Force, Pennsylvania. (1989). Domestic Violence: A Model Protocol for Police Response. Harrisburg, PA.

Berry, Dawn B. (1995). The Domestic Violence Sourcebook. Los Angeles: Lowell House.

National Center for Victims of Crime (1997) "Domestic Violence," FYI, Arlington, VA. National Center for Victims of Crime and Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center. (1992). Rape in America: A Report to the Nation. Arlington, VA: National Center for Victims of Crime and Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center.

Novello, Antonia C. (1992). "A Medical Response to Domestic Violence." Journal of the American Medical Association, 267(23): 3132.

Stark, James and Howard Goldstein. (1985). The Rights of Crime Victims. New York: Bantam Books.

For additional information, please contact:

National Domestic Violence Hotline
(800) 799 - SAFE
(800) 787 - 3224 (TDD)

Family Violence & Sexual Assault Institute
1121 East Southeast Loop 323, Suite 130
Tyler, TX 75701
(903) 534-5100

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Policy Office
P.O. Box 34103
Washington, DC 20043-4103
(202) 544 - 7358

P.O. Box 18749
Denver, CO 80218
(303) 839-1852

National Council on Child Abuse & Family Violence
1155 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 400
Washington, DC 20036
(800) 222 - 2000
(202) 429 - 6695

National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence
6400 Flank Drive, Suite 1300
Harrisburg, PA 17112
(800) 537 - 2238

Your state Attorney General, county/city prosecutor, or county/city law enforcement:

Check in the Blue Pages of your local phone book under the appropriate section heading of either "Local Governments," "County Governments," or "State Government."

All rights reserved.

Copyright © 1997 by the National Center for Victims of Crime.  This information may be freely distributed, provided that it is distributed free of charge, in its entirety and includes this copyright notice.

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Denim Day supporters and media at the Denim Day NYC 2011 press conference
Denim Day supporters and media at the Denim Day NYC 2011 press conference