Domestic violence law varies among US states as well as countries. Still, there are some generally accepted principles regarding what constitutes domestic violence and what action can be taken in civil and criminal courts in response to it. U.S. statutes, such as the Violence Against Women Act, also offer guidance regarding what legal protections exist nationwide and the kinds of measures that are encouraged with grant money and other funding.
Domestic violence can include physical abuse, such as hitting; verbal abuse, such as threats, insults or interrogations; sexual coercion; kidnapping or imprisonment, such as forcing someone to get into or stay in a car; and harassment or stalking, such as repeated, unwanted phone calls, e-mails or visits. Such actions may be considered civil violations or they may constitute crimes regardless of the relationship between a perpetrator and a victim, but they often are handled as a special category of crime when they occur between family members or romantic partners. These situations are categorized differently because violence in these types of close relationships has a tendency to be repeated and escalate, putting victims at greater risk.
Enforcement of domestic violence law may be handled differently because of its unique characteristics. Many police departments assign investigators with special training to such cases, encouraging careful documentation of any injuries and the prosecution of any crimes even if a victim is unwilling to press charges. Domestic violence victims often refuse to cooperate with prosecutions of spousal abuse or other domestic violence because they love or fear a perpetrator. In some jurisdictions, such cases are heard in specialized courts where sentences can include counseling and victims' advocates are on hand to supply information about local shelters and other resources if needed.
Cases that aren't handled in criminal courts can still be pursued through civil actions. These approaches may take the form of protection orders or restraining orders. Domestic violence law makes these orders available to help victim's stay safe by prohibiting an abuser from contacting a victim, ordering the abuser to attend counseling, prohibiting an abuser from buying a gun, or forcing an abuser to move out of a home shared with a victim, among other possible provisions. A pattern of domestic violence can also be factored into the terms of a divorce or child-custody arrangement. For example, a custody agreement can require that a witness be present when one parent picks up a child at the other parent's home, or that the exchange occur at a location away from either parent's home.
Information on domestic violence law specific to a particular location, can be found at local domestic-violence shelters and local law enforcement agencies. The Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence are two more good sources for answers to questions or help in locating the best local resources. Some attorneys specialize in domestic violence law and there are programs to provide financial assistance with legal fees. The Violence Against Women Act also created a National Domestic Violence Hotline that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.