*Note: the following information relates to the court systems in the USA and may vary slightly by jurisdiction. For information related to court documented protection in other parts of the world, visit Global Contacts for a hotline near you.
If you are a victim of violence or abuse and fear for your safety, you have the option of seeking a protective order. This can be a daunting task, especially for victims unfamiliar with court processes or forced to go through the process without support.
A protective order is a court-issued document designed to protect against future acts of violence or threat of violence by requiring the offender (or potential offender) to abide by certain restrictions, including having no contact of any kind with the victim. There is no cost to petition for a protective order and you do not need an attorney (although you may have that option and can contact your local legal aid office for information). You may call your local court or Victim Witness office if you have questions about the process. Criminal charges are not required for a protective order to be given.
Generally, a protective order may be given once the victim has filled out the necessary paperwork and explained to a judge (usually at a later time in the day so plan to be at court for a few hours) why they believe themselves to be in danger. This can be intimidating so it’s not a problem to have a close friend or family member with you for support, especially if you are representing yourself. You can also seek out help from a local rape crisis or domestic violence center. As an advocate, I often accompany clients to court for protective order hearings and that option may be available to you, as well. Advocates know the court system and can answer your questions, as well. It can be especially intimidating when petitioning for a permanent protective order (which lasts 2 years in my state) because the offender has the option to be there. Especially for victims of rape or domestic violence, having to speak before a judge with their offender looking on is extremely nerve wracking. It can also feel empowering once the process is done. If you have evidence (e.g. photographs of injuries, a stalking log, medical reports, witnesses to the abuse, etc.), have that with you when you go to court. You do not need to go into explicit details; you need only convey that you are fearful and the reason for that fear.
Little things can make the hearing a little less stressful. Having someone with you for support is definitely beneficial, whether that is a family member or friend or an advocate. If you think you will cry, that’s okay. If you think of it, have a package of tissues with you or ask your support to have one on hand. If you need to bring documents or evidence with you, make a list of what you will need so you can gather everything easily without fear of forgetting something. Take a stress ball to squeeze while you wait and/or while you talk to the judge. Remember you are not required to look at your offender at any point. Look at the judge. Speak clearly and remember to breath. It takes a lot of courage to talk about what has been or could be done to you so try to remember that you are taking back some of the control your abuser has stolen.
Once a protective order is awarded, it will have specific requirements listed, including what sort of contact (if any) the offender is permitted. If at any time the offender breaks the protective order, immediately call the police. That is a criminal charge. Make copies of the protective order so that you have it with you at all times (in your purse, car, desk at work, etc.) just in case. Federal law in the U.S. requires all states to enforce a protective order regardless of where it was awarded. Again, for more information or specifically legal advice, contact your local court or victim witness program.
Protective orders are not for everyone but they are certainly a viable option for anyone who has been or who is under the threat of being abused or harmed through violence. For parents leaving a domestic violence situation, it is possible to include your children on the protective order for their protection, as well as your own.
Even after getting a protective order, it’s best to have a safety plan in place in case that person tries to contact you. Escaping an abusive relationship is difficult and can be extremely dangerous so have an exit plan, as well. Whether physical domestic violence or verbal abuse, there are tips and resources available to help keep you safe. If you are not leaving an abusive relationship at this time, there are also resources available to help you stay as safe as possible.
It can be difficult to prove nonphysical violence in court. This does not make that type of violence any less deserving of justice. DomesticShelters.org has many wonderful resources related to protective orders, including How to Prove Nonphysical Abuse in Court.