What is domestic violence?

In Massachusetts, domestic violence primarily falls under the Abuse Prevention Law (Mass. Gen. Laws., chap. 209A). According to the Abuse Prevention Law, abuse involves any of the following behaviors:

  • attempting to cause or actually causing physical harm;
  • placing another person in fear of imminent serious physical harm; and
  • compelling another person to engage in unwanted sexual activity, either by force, threat, or duress (see Mass. Gen. Laws, chap. 209A, sec. 1).

Do domestic violence laws apply to people in same-sex relationships?

Yes, depending on how serious you and your partner are or were. The Abuse Prevention Law applies to abuse between spouses and ex-spouses, people who are or were residing in the same household, people who have a child together, and people who are or have been in a substantive dating relationship (Mass. Gen. Laws, chap. 209A, sec. 1. See also Abuse Prevention Guidelines, No. 3:02 (Commentary) (“Unmarried persons who live together, or who did so in the past, are also within the court’s jurisdiction under c. 209A, regardless of whether the relationship between them is homosexual, heterosexual, or not sexual”)).

How can the law protect me from an abusive partner?

If a partner or member of your family or household has been abusive, you can file an application with the court requesting a 209A protective order. A 209A order is a court order prohibiting the abusive person from engaging in certain behaviors, such as contacting you or coming within a certain distance of your home. You can also request that your address be ‘impounded’, i.e. kept confidential and not disclosed to your abuser. Finally, a 209A order may compel the abusive person to do things like pay temporary financial support to you or your children, or compensate you for medical expenses. Violations of a 209A order are criminal offenses and can result in the immediate arrest of the abuser.

Depending on the circumstances, a 209A order may compel your abuser to do any number of the following:

  • refrain from abusing you further;
  • refrain from contacting you directly, indirectly, by telephone, letter, or through any third party;
  • move out of your home, if they live with you;
  • stay away from your residence, workplace, family’s home, or school;
  • temporarily relinquish custody of any minor children;
  • provide you temporary financial support;
  • surrender keys to the household;
  • surrender firearms (Obtaining, Enforcing and Defending Chapter 209A Restraining Orders § 1.4 (2012)).

A 209A order can be granted for a maximum of one year, and can be renewed if necessary. 209A orders do not restrict the activity of the survivor.

How do I get a 209A protective order?

209A protective orders are available free of cost. You can request a 209A order at the District Court near where you live, the Probate and Family Court in your county, or the Superior Court in your county. If you live in Boston, you can also go to the Boston Municipal Court. You can get the necessary forms from the clerk at the courthouse, or from the court’s webpage. In emergency situations after normal business hours, orders may be obtained at a police station.

Temporary 209A orders are generally issued upon request, provided there is a credible allegation of abuse and the Abuse Prevention Law covers the relationship between the survivor and the offender. These orders are good for ten days. The court will then schedule a hearing within the ten day window, during which the order can be extended for up to one year. The survivor is required to be present at the extension hearing, but the defendant can choose not to attend. Although a lawyer is not needed for a 209A order, obtaining counsel may be helpful in certain cases, particularly if you believe your abuser is going to contest the order.

If I go to court, will I ‘out’ myself?

Not necessarily. The courts try to be sensitive to the fact that some people seeking orders may be closeted, or may be in a same-sex relationship that they do not want revealed.

Where can I go to get help?

In addition to the local police and district attorney, you can call the Violence Recovery Program at 1-800-834-3242 (toll free in MA), the Network La Red at (617) 742-4911, and Jane Doe, Inc. at (617) 248-0922.

Does domestic violence play a role in custody decisions?

Yes. Evidence that a parent has abused or is currently abusing their child or partner is evidence that said parent is not acting in the best interests of the child. If there is a pattern of abuse, or even one serious incident of abuse, a rebuttable presumption arises in the law that it is not in the child’s best interests to be placed in sole custody, shared legal custody, or shared physical custody with the abusive parent (Mass. Gen. Laws, chap. 208, sec. 31A).