What is domestic violence?

Under the laws of domestic relations, “abuse” includes causing or trying to cause physical harm; causing fear of imminent serious physical harm; or abuse to children, which includes physical injury, neglect, emotional maltreatment or sexual abuse; stalking; and sexual assault (see 15 V.S.A. § 1101(1)).

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

In most situations, yes.  These laws apply to abuse between family members, which includes civil union spouses, as well as between “household members,” which includes people who are living or have lived together, but also those who have or had a sexual relationship, or who are dating or have dated.  To determine whether a dating relationship exists or existed, the court looks to whether the relationship is/was of a romantic nature, how long it has been/was going on, how often the parties interact/ed, and, if the parties have broken up, how long ago the relationship ended (15 V.S.A. § 1101(2)).

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

You can file a complaint seeking relief from abuse in the family division of the superior court in the county in which you live, or, if you have just fled your home, in either your new or old county. There is no fee (15 V.S.A. § 1103(f)).

If you are in immediate danger from harm, you can file an application for a temporary order (15 V.S.A. § 1104). That application can be filed in the criminal, civil or family division of the superior court (15 V.S.A. § 1102(b)). All of the courts are required to have procedures for people to file these applications after regular court hours, or on weekends and holidays (15 V.S.A. § 1106(b)). Temporary orders are generally issued upon request, based on the existence of a relationship between victim and offender that is covered by the law and a credible allegation of abuse or threats of abuse.

The order, a copy of which must be given to the abuser, will state a time within ten days of its being issued for the defendant to contest it (15 V.S.A. § 1104(b)).  At the hearing, if the victim proves the abuse, the court will keep the order in effect and make other orders it deems necessary to keep the victim safe (15 V.S.A. § 1104(b)). Once an order is issued, it is filed with the Department of Public Safety’s abuse database.  Police and sheriff’s departments, as well as state police district offices are also required to maintain procedures to make personnel aware of the existence and contents of abuse prevention orders (15 V.S.A. § 1107).

The order will stay in effect for a fixed period of time, at the end of which the court may extend it for as long as it deems necessary to protect the victim.  The court does not have to find that abuse took place during the time covered by the order to extend it (15 V.S.A. § 1103(e)).

You don’t need a lawyer to get the temporary order, but it may be helpful to have one for later hearings if you think the abuser will contest the order.  The court administrators may be able to connect you with agencies that help victims seek relief and gain access to the courts (15 V.S.A. § 1106(b)).

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.  Failure to show up might make the court think you are unreliable if you need legal help in the future.

Violation of an abuse order is a criminal offense and can result in the immediate arrest of the abuser, as well as imprisonment of up to six months and a fine of up to $1000 (15 V.S.A. § 1108(e)). It is worth noting that restraining orders do not restrict the abuse victim’s activities or contacts.

A victim may participate in an address confidentiality program, through which the Secretary of State gives the victim another address to use in order to keep the actual address confidential from the public (15 V.S.A. § 1152).

There are other laws that prohibit stalking, harassing and trespassing that may also apply to your situation, but are beyond the scope of this document.  For more information, you may wish to consult the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services at 1-800-750-1213 (Toll Free in Vermont Only) or (803) 241-1250 or http://www.ccvs.state.vt.us/.

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

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.  A relief-from-abuse order is a public record, however.

Where can I go to get help?

In addition to the local police and district attorney, you can contact the Vermont Network Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at www.vtnetwork.org, at vtnetwork@vtnetwork.org (email) or 1-800-228-7395.  They can provide you with information and assistance and connect you to resources in your area.

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 (15 V.S.A. § 665(b)(9)).