Victims of domestic violence are protected under both federal and state laws, and may seek relief in civil as well as criminal court. For example, victims may help law enforcement build a criminal case against their abuser while at the same time filing a civil lawsuit for assault and battery. Federally, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) offers additional resources for victims of domestic violence. FindLaw's Domestic Violence Laws sub-section includes state-specific links to domestic violence laws, related information and forms; an overview of the federal Violence Against Women Act; information about criminal stalking; and more.
The Violence Against Women Act
Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994 and supplemented the bill in 1996 to create and fund programs to help protect victims of domestic violence. The Act established a national domestic violence hotline, provided for confidentiality for the addresses of victims of domestic abuse, and changed the immigration laws to permit battered spouses to apply for permanent residency independent of their abusive spouses.
Prior to VAWA perpetrators of domestic violence could often circumvent orders of protection by moving to another jurisdiction. VAWA made interstate travel for the purpose of committing an act of domestic violence or violating an order of protection. The law also sought to incentivize the implementation of policies by state and local authorities to better protect victims of domestic violence. It conditioned the receipt of federal funds on the implementation of mandatory or pro-arrest programs relating to domestic violence, including mandatory arrest programs and policies for protection order violations. VAWA expired in 2011, but was renewed in 2013 and remains in effect.
State Domestic Violence Laws
Domestic violence laws differ from state-to-state, sometimes significantly. Even the definition of domestic violence can vary. Some states require physical abuse, while others include emotional, psychological, and financial abuse in the definition. A majority of states have adopted preferred arrest policies requiring that the police arrest one or both parties at the scene of an incident of domestic violence or write a report justifying the decision not to arrest anyone. Some states have even instituted mandatory arrest policies if certain criteria for seriousness are met.
State laws may require or exempt persons or agencies from reporting evidence of domestic violence. In California, for example, counselors and psychologists are not subject to mandatory reporting. Doctors dealing only with physical complaints, however, have a mandatory reporting requirement. Other states have even broader requirements. In New Jersey and Wyoming anyone who knows or reasonably suspects domestic abuse is required to report the abuse to police.
In many states victims of domestic violence can terminate a lease early without being held liable for the rest of the lease term, though police reports, restraining orders, or other evidence may be required in order to be granted this exemption.
The "Domestic Violence Green Card"
Under VAWA, a foreign national may be eligible to apply for permanent residency in the United States through self-petition if they are present in the United States and were abused by a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. Foreign nationals abused by an employee of the U.S. government or a member of the uniformed services may also be eligible even without being present at the U.S. Those who are unlawfully present in the U.S. who are ineligible for the VAWA application for residency may qualify for the U visa, which provides lawful status, employment authorization, and an independent process to acquire residency.