Unfortunately, domestic violence is an all-too-common problem. More than one in three women and one in four men in the United States will experience violence by an intimate partner.
Given the impact that abuse renders on families and children, courts take charges of domestic violence very seriously. In a divorce proceeding, for example, if there is a history of abuse, it will impact a judge's decisions about child custody and visitation—after all, a family law judge is tasked with considering the child's best interests, including how to best protect the child's health, safety, and welfare.
This article provides a basic overview of domestic violence hearings. If you're a party to a domestic violence case, you should contact an experienced attorney for help.
In family law cases involving domestic violence, a hearing will be held to determine if a temporary restraining order or child custody order is necessary.
Once the victim (referred to as the petitioner) files the request for a domestic violence restraining order, the court will schedule a hearing. At the hearing, a judge will decide whether enough evidence exists to support a protective order in favor of the victim. Protective orders will often prohibit the abuser (referred to as the respondent) from contacting the victim in any way—in-person, calls, texts, emails, social media, or messaging—and from coming within a certain distance of the victim—at home, work, school, or anywhere else the victim frequents—while the order is in effect.
In addition, if the parties have minor children, the judge may order that the custody of any children involved be granted exclusively to the victim in order to help keep the children safe from abuse and prevent them from witnessing any further abuse. If the court finds that the abuser did in fact commit acts of domestic violence, the court may order that the abuser have only limited, supervised contact with the parties' children. In extreme cases, a judge may order that the abuser have absolutely no contact with the children.
Both sides should prepare for the hearing by getting organized.
If you're the petitioner, you must be prepared to provide the court with a thorough and complete history of your relationship with the abuser, including evidence of alleged past abuse; this is relevant to establishing the need for protection. Practice telling your story before you get to court.
Take photographs of any and all injuries—documentary and photographic evidence will add credibility to your presentation, particularly where the only other evidence is your own testimony. If you have medical records related to your injuries, have them ready to submit to the court. With respect to the actual incident giving rise to the domestic violence case, you must be prepared to give the court concrete details, such as the day, date, time, and place of the incident.
If you plan to seek emergency family maintenance (financial support) at your domestic violence hearing, you must testify as to your financial needs (such as rent, child care, food, and insurance) and the financial resources available to both parties (for example, income and liquid assets). Make a list of all of your income and monthly expenses, and provide the court with all supporting documentation. Get pay stubs and tax returns; if you can't get copies of the respondent's pay stubs, you can still put his or her income into evidence with a copy of your tax returns (if they are joint).
If you are served with a complaint alleging domestic violence, it's important to find a lawyer who specializes in this type of case and is familiar with local court practices. Be completely honest with your lawyer.
If you deny that the incident of domestic violence occurred, you must defend your case at trial. You would be wise not to try and represent yourself in court—instead, hire a family law lawyer or criminal defense attorney with experience defending domestic violence cases. See Defenses Against Domestic Violence Charges and Defending Against a Restraining Order for more information.
You can find more information in our section on Domestic Violence & Family Law.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline website provides useful information and links to resources for victims of domestic violence. You can also contact them at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788.