A. Definitions

Domestic violence includes beatings, threats, stalking, other forms of intimidation, harassment, neglect, and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Domestic violence may include any act by one family member that causes physical or emotional harm to another family member.

B. The Harmful Effects of Domestic Violence

In addition to the obvious immediate trauma caused by violence, domestic violence has long-term, far-reaching harmful effects on all members of the family. The lifetime harm to children is well-known.

Even when you decide to get help, being involved in domestic violence can make it harder for you to relate to your lawyer or others who might be able to help you. Domestic violence has long been considered a private matter, not to be discussed outside the family. Reluctance to talk about these problems is a direct result of the feelings of guilt and fear experienced by members of families marked by violence. It is ironic that even the victims of domestic violence, who have done nothing wrong, feel guilty about it.

In some states, domestic violence may be a ground of fault in the divorce proceeding. In others it affects only child custody and visitation.

The two most important points to remember about domestic violence are:

If you are committing it, stop!

If you are a victim of it, get help!

C. Tell Your Lawyer

Although it is hard to discuss domestic violence that you have been involved in, it is most important that you tell your lawyer about it. Your lawyer can’t help you unless the full extent of the violence is disclosed. Your lawyer can help you find remedies and resources, but only if the lawyer knows about the problem.

D. What Can Be Done?

As difficult as domestic violence is to deal with, help is available and your lawyer can help you find it. Here are some potential resources.

1. Shelters

Many cities have public and private agencies that provide shelters for battered spouses (usually women) and children. Since victims of violence fear that more violence will result from leaving the home, the locations of the shelters are kept secret. Many such agencies also provide counseling and legal help when the victims cannot afford to pay for such services.

2. Restraining orders

Legal procedures are available. Courts can order that the perpetrator of domestic violence move out of the family residence. Restraining orders can be made which may be enforced by the police. The courts of many states have simplified procedures for people to get court orders against domestic violence. Sometimes these procedures are designed to be used by persons unrepresented by a lawyer if they cannot afford one. Forms and instruction booklets are sometimes available from the court clerk.

3. Criminal prosecution

If you are the victim of domestic violence, a report to the authorities for possible prosecution may be appropriate. Sometimes the victim of domestic violence is reluctant to report the crime to the authorities for fear of the consequences of sending the other spouse to jail. Often, the perpetrator of the violence is the sole support of the family and fear of being without money to live on stops victims from making a criminal complaint.

4. Civil lawsuits

In some states, spouses have the right to sue each other aside from a divorce proceeding. If you have been involved in domestic violence, talk to your lawyer about the possibility of a separate lawsuit. Deadlines called statutes of limitation apply to such suits so that unless they are filed within a certain time (sometimes as soon as a year or less from the date of the act), you lose your right to sue.

Usually the only remedy available by civil lawsuit is money damages. The prospect of a judgment for civil damages can affect the settlement negotiations in the divorce case. It can also be a deterrent to further violence.

If you have committed an act of domestic violence, you will want any divorce settlement to include a release of all civil claims for such acts. Your lawyer needs to know about them so they can be included in the release.

5. Therapy

Domestic violence is usually a symptom of deeper problems. It is very difficult to treat or cure, and usually requires extensive therapy for the perpetrator as well as the victim. Agencies are available in most cities that can provide therapy according to ability to pay. Your lawyer can recommend a therapist.

E. Reporting requirements

In some states domestic violence towards children must be reported by lawyers to child welfare authorities. The usual confidentiality of conversations with your lawyer may not extend to child abuse. In some states, physicians, psychotherapists, and public officials are required to make a report, but not lawyers. A report of child abuse can lead to criminal prosecution and even placing the child in a foster home or public facility.

SOURCE: American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Divorce Manual; A Client Handbook