Domestic violence is an epidemic. Twenty people abuse their intimate partners every minute in the United States. One in four women and one in nine men experience domestic assault at some point in their lives.
Survivors are stepping forward and creating change. Domestic violence laws are being passed on the federal and state levels, protecting survivors and sending abusers to jail. Many people remain unaware of spousal and child abuse laws.
Get the facts you need. Here are seven state and federal laws on domestic violence.
- The Violence Against Women Act
The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA) was the first federal legislation to criminalize domestic violence. The Act provided federal resources to respond to violence and sexual assault.
The Act had many provisions to protect survivors. It contained a “rape shield law,” preventing offenders from using survivors’ past sexual conduct in a trial.
The Act provided free rape kits for women. It delegated resources to police departments, allowing them to develop crime units for domestic violence. The Act applied to Indigenous reservations, giving law enforcement officers the authority to arrest offenders on probable cause.
The VAWA expired in 2018. A reauthorization act is currently working through Congress.
The reauthorization would increase investment in sexual harassment education. It would improve housing protections, providing federally-assisted housing for survivors. This act is open to revision, but organizations like the National Network to End Domestic Violence back it in full.
- The Gun Control Act
Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968 to regulate firearms sales. Congress then revised the Act in 1994 and 1996 to extend protections for domestic abuse survivors.
Under their revisions, it is a federal crime for someone to have a firearm while they are subject to a restraining order. If a court convicts them of domestic violence, they also cannot own a firearm.
States must establish their removal processes. The law does not force abusers to give up the guns they previously owned. The prohibition in the Gun Control Act does not apply to people with stalking convictions.
- The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act
The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) provided funding to domestic violence assistance programs. It gave funding to women’s shelters, education services, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Like the VAWA, the FVPSA expired. Bipartisan legislators are currently working on an improvement bill.
The new FVPSA would increase investments and expand protections to Indigenous tribes. It would support culturally-specific programs, allowing BIPOC communities to access more services.
- The Victims of Crime Act
The Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) established the Crime Victims Fund. The Fund provides resources to survivors of crime, including domestic violence.
Though the FVPSA has expired, states receive funding for domestic violence resources through the Crime Victims Fund. The Fund supports domestic violence shelters and gives compensation to victims. Medical bills and lost wages are covered.
- Definitions of Abuse
Every state has its own laws pertaining to domestic assault but the laws vary wildly. Their terms refer to different things, so some states lack some protections that other states have.
In particular, every state defines “abuse” differently. In California, abuse can mean a few different behaviors. Causing bodily injury, committing sexual assault, and threatening to assault all count as abuse.
Colorado uses the terms, “domestic violence” and “domestic abuse.” Domestic violence is any crime against a person that is used to control that person in an intimate relationship. Domestic abuse is any crime against someone who is related to, lives with, or is in an intimate relationship with the perpetrator.
Self-defense in domestic cases varies. The state of Minnesota has a 5th degree assault law, which prosecutes people who make threatening gestures. You may not be able to claim self-defense if the person did not touch you.
- Child Witnessing
Twenty-four states address child witnessing in their statutes. Some regard it as an additional offense, on top of domestic violence charges.
The state of Delaware considers a child witnessing an act of domestic violence as “endangering the welfare of a child.” It is a Class A misdemeanor, which can lead to a one-year prison sentence.
Other states consider witnessing as a factor in sentencing. In Florida, a judge multiplies sentencing points by 1.5 if domestic violence occurred in a child’s presence. A score of 44 points or higher leads to an automatic prison sentence.
Though most states do not address child witnessing, children can receive some protections. A state agency can relocate them from a parent who is violent toward them. The Crime Victims Fund covers therapy that results from witnessing violence.
- Restraining Order Laws
Each state has its own procedures for restraining orders. All states allow survivors to file orders against offenders. A judge can add provisions like “no contact,” prohibiting contact between the two parties.
Massachusetts allows three types of orders. A judge issues an emergency protective order over the phone if there is an immediate danger of abuse.
A judge can grant a temporary order without a full court hearing. It creates protections until a formal hearing is arranged. The judge can then decide on a long-term order, preventing an offender from accessing their former partner.
Ohio has two types of orders. A judge can grant a temporary order immediately. The order lasts until the hearing for a full-time order takes place.
The judge can then issue a civil protection order (CPO). The CPO lasts up to five years, though the terms vary. If either parent files for divorce, the CPO is open to review.
The Essential Domestic Violence Laws
Domestic violence can be isolating. But resources are there for survivors and their families. Domestic violence laws provide for survivors while punishing offenders.
The Violence Against Women Act provided resources for the prosecution of domestic violence. The Gun Control Act keeps firearms out of the hands of offenders. The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act funded statewide women’s shelters and initiatives, and the Victims of Crime Act continues to do so.
Every state has its own laws related to domestic violence. As such, the policies related to abuse, child witnessing, and restraining orders differ. Review your state’s laws before pursuing legal action.
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