What is domestic violence?

Under the laws for the Family Court and the District Court, “domestic abuse” means the occurrence of one or more of the following acts between people who are family members, parents, or persons who are or have been in a substantive dating relationship within the past year, or against the minor child of one of the parties:

  • attempting to cause or causing physical harm;
  • placing another in fear of imminent serious physical harm;
  • causing another to engage involuntarily in sexual relations by force, threat of force, or duress; and
  • stalking or cyberstalking (see R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-15-1 (2) (family court); § 8-8.1-1(5) (district court)).

Note that the District Court provisions prohibit abuse between “cohabitants” and apply to substantive dating relationships regardless of the age of the parties, and are thus broader than the Family Court provisions.

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

Yes, if you are married or in a civil union.  Even if you are not, some same-sex relationships are covered under the definition of “substantive dating relationship.”  This includes relationships which are “significant and personal/intimate” based on the length of time of the relationship, the type of relationship, and the frequency of interaction between the parties (R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-5-1 (5) and § 8-8.1-1(5)). Other relationships may be covered if partners or former partners share legal parentage of a child (R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-5-1 (3)). As well, in the District Court, partners who live together or have lived together within the past three years may be considered “cohabitants” (R.I. Gen. Laws § 8-8.1-1 (1)).

How do I get a court order protecting me from an abusive partner?

The process is intended to be simple.  You may go to the appropriate court (District Court or Family Court) where you live, or if you have just fled your home, you can also file in the town where you used to live.  You will need to fill out a complaint alleging “abuse” as defined above.  The complaint is under oath, so everything you say must be true.  Try to put in as much detail as possible demonstrating why you feel threatened.

If you are in danger of harm, the Court can grant you a temporary protective order for not more than 21 days, which can include an order restraining your abuser from hurting you, barring him or her from entering your home, assigning child custody and requiring payment of child support.  If the courts are closed (nights, holidays, weekends), you can contact the local or state police, who will be able to contact a judge on call to handle these matters.

The defendant/abuser must be served with (given a copy of) the court order and notified of his or her right to contest the order in court. Once the order is issued, it is filed with the state Bureau of Criminal Identification and is effective state-wide.  Violation of a court order of which an abuser has notice is a criminal offense (R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-15-3 and § 8-8.1-3).

The Court will also assign a date for another hearing at which the temporary order will either be extended or dismissed.  At that time, both parties often have attorneys.  You should bring with you any witnesses who can substantiate the abuse, as well as copies of threatening letters, medical records, or any other documents which can show how you have been harmed and why you are afraid.  Expect to be asked questions by both the judge and the attorney(s) for the abuser/defendant.  You have the same right to ask questions.

If for some reason you decide not to go through with the legal process, you should show up in court anyway and ask that the order be dismissed.  If you don’t show up, it is possible that the court will think you are unreliable and may hold that against you should you need legal help in the future.

There are other laws which prohibit stalking, harassing and trespassing which may apply to you, but are beyond the scope of this document.

If I go to court, will I out myself for all purposes?

Not necessarily.  Some courts try to be sensitive to the fact that some people seeking orders may be closeted, or may be in a same-sex relationship which they do not want revealed.  If you proceed in the District Court rather than the Family Court, you do not have to claim that you are in a “substantive dating relationship,” but only that you are cohabitants to get a protective order, and thus you may be able to conceal your sexual orientation if you choose (R.I. Gen. Laws, § 8-8.1-1).

Where can I go to get help?

In addition to the local police and district attorney, you can call:

The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence at (401) 467-9940, www.ricadv.org.  Helpline 24 hours every day at (800) 494-8100

Day One, the Sexual Assault and Trauma Resource Center, at (401) 421-4100 or (800) 494-8100, www.dayoneri.org.

Does domestic violence play a role in custody decisions?

Yes.  Evidence that a parent has in the past, or is presently, abusing the other parent or the child is a factor showing that that parent is not acting in the best interests of the child (R.I. Gen. Laws, § 15-5-16(g)).