You are not alone. Many families are feeling heightened tension as we navigate the unknowns of this worldwide health crisis together. With the Temporary Stay at Home Order Due to Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) issued by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam on March 30, 2020, people are being exposed to increasingly dangerous situations, not just from the outside world, but from their spouses or significant others too.
What happens when pre-existing problems at home get worse, as spouses and significant others have no reprieve from each other or the constant needs of their children? What can you do when heated arguments and/or raised voices begin spiraling towards physical altercations and you find yourself panicked, looking for a way out?
With most of us ordered to stay home, victims and survivors of domestic violence have far less exposure to the friends, family, coworkers, and community programs that might otherwise detect abuse and intervene. Similarly, with schools closed, children exposed to violence in their homes do not have their teachers, school counselors, coaches, and other school-based professionals monitoring their daily welfare as they normally would.
In Virginia, domestic violence support hotlines are facing an enormous influx of callers asking for help. The Virginian-Pilot reported a 76% increase in calls statewide in March, according to the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. The Alliance also said that approximately 1,000 Virginians sought shelter from domestic violence that month.
Response of Virginia Courts to COVID-19
To comply with recent government regulations, Virginia courts have implemented temporary operating procedures which can differ between jurisdictions. Although most county or city-operated buildings have limited access to the public to protect their staff, the Virginia courts are continuing to perform essential functions at a limited capacity.
To reduce person-to-person contact, many Virginia courts have modified their procedures for filing documents, and fewer types of hearings are being permitted at this time. Exceptions are allowed for emergency matters like protective orders for family abuse, but some jurisdictions have changed their rules on how people can obtain the different types of protective orders, as well.
For example, your jurisdiction might permit you to submit an affidavit (a sworn written statement), as opposed to speaking directly to a judge in a courtroom, to be granted a preliminary protective order. Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court has now moved to this procedure. In other jurisdictions, courts are following the normal, pre-COVID-19 outbreak procedures. Given the differences in procedures between each jurisdiction, you should call the clerk’s office, review the court’s website, and/or speak to an attorney who regularly practices in your jurisdiction to make sure you understand the procedures required to file for the type of protective order you are seeking to be issued.
Types of Protective Orders in Virginia
Family abuse protective orders are intended to keep an abuser away from a person in their household to stop violent behavior toward that person. In Virginia, there are three types of protective orders: emergency, preliminary, and full.
Emergency Protective Orders
Emergency protective orders can be obtained at any time, on any day, even if the courthouse is not open. To obtain an emergency protective order, the victim must be able to demonstrate what family abuse has been committed by the abuser and that there is probable danger of additional family abuse by this person against the victim or another family member in the house.
Emergency protective orders are issued by a judge or magistrate and can be requested by a law enforcement officer on behalf of a victim. These protective orders can also be issued “ex parte” (meaning without notice given to the abuser), but the abuser will need to be served with a copy of the order as soon as possible and before it takes effect.
An emergency protective order expires 72 hours after the order is issued or at 5:00 p.m. on the next business day after it was set to expire if the court is closed.
Preliminary Protective Orders
Preliminary protective orders are required before a full protective order can be granted. To obtain a preliminary protective order (or full protective order), you must file a written petition with the court. The court then issues a preliminary protective order that lasts until a court hearing can take place, generally within 15 days of issuance.
In the event your abuser is not served with the preliminary protective order before the hearing on a full protective order, the judge may extend the preliminary protective order for up to six months.
Full Protective Orders
Full protective orders are issued by the court after a hearing before a judge, where both you and the person you want the order against appear in court to explain what happened from your perspective. These protective orders can be granted for a period of up to two years, but you can ask the court to extend the order prior to its expiration.
In general, police estimate that roughly 31,000 Virginia protective orders are active at any given time. However, with more instances of domestic violence being perpetrated during the coronavirus “shelter in place” order, this number could increase in the coming months.
Tips for Domestic Violence Victims During COVID-19
If you are experiencing threats of domestic violence from your spouse or significant other during the COVID-19 crisis, consider the following tips to protect your legal interests:
- Contact the authorities. If your life or the lives of your children are in immediate danger, or if you need emergency help, call 9-1-1. For non-emergencies, call your local police.
- Seek privacy and speak with a counselor. Find a safe place where you can speak to domestic violence support counselors while maintaining social distancing (for example, take a walk in your neighborhood or make a phone call from inside your parked car). The National Domestic Violence Hotline professionals can be reached by phone at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or via live online chat at www.thehotline.org. The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance Statewide Hotline professionals can be reached by phone at 1-800-838-8238, by text message at 804-793-9999, or via live online chat at www.vadata.org/chat. The Virginia Department of Social Services (DSS) also provides a directory created by the Alliance consisting of shelters or programs in jurisdictions throughout Virginia. You can find the Alliance directory and other information and resources on the Domestic Violence page of the Virginia DSS website.
- Contact a lawyer. Speak with an experienced family law attorney in your area about your rights. Every case is unique, and an attorney can provide guidance for your individual situation.
- File in court. If your circumstances qualify, request an emergency or preliminary protective order. Also, consider whether you need protection for a few days or up to two years by seeking a full protective order.
- Plan ahead. Make a plan to protect your emotional and physical safety as much as possible while sheltering in place. Gather financial resources and important personal documentation in case you need to leave your home.
- Gather support. Identify people in your life who you can talk to for emotional and financial support, whether or not they are aware of your home situation. Reach out to loved ones and note who would have room in their homes for you and your children if you are forced to flee your living situation.
- Document the abuse. Keep a summary or log of instances when your spouse or significant other has acted violently towards you and/or your children. In this log, you should include dates, times, names of everyone present during each incident, and detailed descriptions of what happened, including if the police were notified. Your log can be written on paper by hand, or it can be kept electronically (e-mailed to yourself or a trusted person, or saved to a document on your phone, tablet, or computer for easy access). If you chose to create an electronic log, then make sure that your spouse or significant other does not have access to your passwords or electronic accounts so that they do not tamper with your log or know that you are documenting the abuse. When in doubt, if possible, store your important documentation or information “off-site” with a trusted person to keep it for future use.
- If necessary, leave. Protective orders are intended to discourage contact between an abuser and a victim, and to allow the court to punish an abuser if he or she makes contact with the victim that is contrary to what the protective order delineates. What that said, protective orders are not physical barriers to shield you. If an abuser is violating a protective order and your physical well-being is in danger, leave your home, get to safety, and call the police.
- Do not blame yourself. You are not responsible for your spouse or significant other’s behavior. Abusers crave power and control. May abusers are also using the coronavirus crisis to exert deeper control over their loved ones.
- Do not retaliate. Do not respond to violence with more violence, unless it is absolutely necessary to defend yourself or your children’s physical safety. Do not engage with the abuser more than is required. When in doubt, call the police and remove yourself and your children from the situation as fast as possible.
You and your children have the right to live without fearing abuse by your spouse or significant other. If you are experiencing domestic violence at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, be sure to speak with a family law attorney in your area as soon as you safely can.
Livesay & Myers, P.C. has a team of experienced family lawyers across offices in Fairfax, Arlington, Ashburn, Manassas, and Fredericksburg, representing clients across Northern Virginia. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.
See also: Protective Orders in Virginia