What is Domestic Violence

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Definitions of Domestic Violence

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Series: State Statutes
Author(s): Child Welfare Information Gateway
Year Published: 2011
Current Through February 2011

This brief introduction summarizes how States address this topic in statute. To access the statutes for a specific State or territory, visit the State Statutes Search.

The definition of domestic violence varies depending on the context in which the term is used. A clinical or behavioral definition is “a pattern of assaultive and/or coercive behaviors, including physical, sexual, and psychological attacks, as well as economic coercion, that adults or adolescents use against their intimate partners.”1 Legal definitions across the States generally describe specific conduct or acts that are subject to civil and criminal actions, and the specific language used may vary depending on whether the definition is found in the civil or criminal sections of the State’s code.

Civil Laws
Approximately 46 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands define domestic violence in their civil statutes.2 These statutes typically are found in domestic relations laws but also may be found in family or social services laws, and they provide a means for victims of domestic violence to obtain civil orders of protection and other protective services.

Domestic violence can be defined as “attempting to cause or causing bodily injury to a family or household member or placing a family or household member by threat of force in fear of imminent physical harm.”3 Other terms used across the States include “abuse,” “domestic abuse,” and “family violence.” While the specific language used by States to define domestic violence varies considerably, 24 States, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands define domestic violence as the occurrence of any of the following acts:4

Causing or attempting to cause physical or mental harm to a family or household member
Placing a family or household member in fear of physical or mental harm
Causing or attempting to cause a family or household member to engage in involuntary sexual activity by force, threat of force, or duress
Engaging in activity toward a family or household member that would cause a reasonable person to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested5
Approximately 40 States, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands list in their statutes specific acts that constitute domestic violence.6 Most common among these are sexual assault, assault or battery, causing physical harm or serious injury, threatening or placing a victim in fear of harm, harassment, stalking, trespassing, damage to property, kidnapping, and unlawful restraint. Approximately 11 States and Puerto Rico include child abuse in their civil definitions of domestic violence.7 The civil definitions in Colorado include violence or threatened violence against an animal that is owned by a victim of domestic violence, and injuring or killing an animal as a means of harassing a person is considered domestic violence in Nevada.

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Child Abuse Reporting and Child Protection Laws
Most States do not address the issue of domestic violence within their child abuse and neglect reporting laws. Montana includes “commission of acts of violence against another person residing in the child’s home” in its definition of psychological abuse or neglect.8 West Virginia defines an abused child, in part, as a child whose health or welfare is harmed or threatened by domestic violence.9 Approximately 22 States and Puerto Rico address the issue of children exposed to domestic violence in their homes in civil or criminal codes other than child protection laws.10

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Criminal Laws
Approximately 34 States, American Samoa, Guam, and Puerto Rico define domestic violence in their criminal or penal codes.11 These definitions generally describe acts that can lead to arrest and misdemeanor or felony prosecution.

In criminal laws, domestic violence may be defined as “any criminal offense involving violence or physical harm or threat of violence or physical harm” committed by one family or household member against another.12 Other terms used across the States include “domestic assault,” “domestic battery,” “domestic abuse,” or “assault against a family or household member.” The specific language and terminology used by States in criminally defining domestic violence varies considerably.

Approximately 16 States, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico list in their statutes specific acts that constitute domestic violence.13 Most common among these are assault or battery, sexual assault, harassment, stalking, trespassing, kidnapping, and burglary or robbery. Arizona, Utah, and American Samoa include child abuse in their criminal definitions of domestic violence. Animal cruelty is included in the criminal definitions in Arkansas.

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Persons Included in the Definitions
In all States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories, the statutes specify that only persons who have some sort of personal relationship are protected by the domestic violence laws. The most common relationships listed include spouses and former spouses, persons who are currently living together, who have previously lived together, are involved or were previously involved in a dating or intimate relationship, or who have a child in common, whether or not they have ever lived together.

Approximately 34 States, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands include children as a class of protected persons within their definitions of domestic violence.14 Most commonly, a child who is a member of the household or a child of either adult in the relationship is protected. Seven States and Puerto Rico specifically include grandchildren as protected persons.15 Four States include foster children.16 Foster parents are included as protected persons in seven States.17

To access the statutes for a specific State or territory, visit the State Statutes Search.

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1 Susan Schechter and Jeffrey Edelson, Effective Intervention in Domestic Violence and Child Maltreatment Cases: Guidelines for Policy and Practice (Reno, NV: National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 1999), 122-123. back
2 The word approximately is used to stress the fact that States frequently amend their laws. This information is current only through February 2011. States that do not define domestic violence in their civil laws include Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Oklahoma. Delaware defines domestic violence only within the context of title 13, chapter 7A, Child Protection from Domestic Violence and Sex Offenders Act. back
3 See Arizona Rev. Stat. § 36-3001. back
4 Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming. back
5 See Michigan Comp. Laws § 400.1501. back
6 Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. back
7 Alabama, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and Vermont. back
8 See Mont. Code Ann. § 41-3-102.West Va. Code Ann. § 49-1-3(a)(4). back
9 See West Va. Code Ann. § 49-1-3(a)(4). back
10 As of November 2009, the States included Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington. For more information, including citations and summaries of laws, see the Information Gateway publication, Child Witnesses to Domestic Violence: http://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/witnessdv.cfm back
11 Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. back
12 See, for example, Utah Ann. Code § 77-36-1. back
13 Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. back
14 Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia. back
15 Arizona, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia. back
16 Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas. back
17Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas. back

This publication is a product of the State Statutes Series prepared by Child Welfare Information Gateway. While every attempt has been made to be as complete as possible, additional information on these topics may be in other sections of a State’s code as well as agency regulations, case law, and informal practices and procedures.

This material may be freely reproduced and distributed. However, when doing so, please credit Child Welfare Information Gateway.

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2 thoughts on “What is Domestic Violence

  1. Hi! This post could not be written any better! Reading
    this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this.
    I will forward this article to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read.
    Thank you for sharing!

    Like

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