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Frequently Asked Questions About Domestic Violence

Authored By: DC Bar Pro Bono Center


What if I am not safe?

Call 911 and/or get to a safe place immediately.

For more information about developing a comprehensive safety plan, please click here.

I'm afraid that my abuser will find out I'm looking up domestic violence resources on the Internet.  What can I do?
  • An abuser can track your computer use in many ways, such as accessing your email inbox and sent mail as well as looking at a history of the web sites you visit. You may want to use a "safe" computer he or she cannot access at a library, community center or a friend's home.

  • Click here to learn more ways to protect yourself.

What is domestic violence?
  • Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior that one intimate partner uses to maintain a position of power over his or her partner. It is not necessarily hitting or beating. Some behaviors often used to get and keep control include:
    • Intimidating you and making you afraid;
    • Physically assaulting you (hitting, pushing, kicking, shoving, spitting);
    • Threatening (with words or actions) to physically assault you;
    • Sexually abusing you (forcing or coercing you);
    • Stalking (following or harassing you repeatedly in a way that scares you);
    • Emotionally abusing you (with put downs, name calling, constant criticism);
    • Psychological abuse (destroying property, hurting pets, threats to hurt you, your children or pets, threats of suicide, threats to call immigration);
    • Isolating you from family and friends;
    • Economic abuse (interfering with your ability to get or keep a job or go to school, controlling the money).
  • While all of those things are abusive, the law will only protect you from certain things. Each state has its own laws about domestic violence. Go to to find out about other states and to see other resources on D.C. law.
How does D.C. law define domestic violence?

In D.C., domestic violence is called an intrafamily offense. An intrafamily offense is anything that could be punished as a criminal offense (type of conduct), when it is committed by someone related to you in certain ways (relationship).

  • Type of Conduct. Domestic violence might include crimes such as:
    • Assault or threats to assault - for example, hitting you, trying to hit you, verbally threatening to hit you, or pointing a weapon at you.
    • Kidnapping - for example, taking you somewhere against your will or not letting you leave your home.
    • Stalking.
    • Rape, sexual abuse, or other unwanted sexual touching - this includes using threats to get you to engage in sexual conduct.
    • Cruelty to children.
    • Destroying property or threatening to damage property (for example, slashing your car tires or hurting your pet).
  • Relationship. D.C. law on domestic violence also requires a relationship between the abuser and the victim. The person who abused you must be related to you by one of the following:
    • Blood (parent, child, sibling, or other relative).
    • Marriage or domestic partnership.
    • Legal custody or adoption.
    • Having a child in common.
    • Sharing a residence, now or in the past.
    • Having a romantic or dating relationship (sexual or non-sexual), now or in the past.
    • Having a relationship (marriage, domestic partnership, dating) with the same person the abuser has or had a relationship with.
  • Note: If you are being stalked, even if you have no other relationship with the stalker, you are protected by D.C. law. Keep reading to learn what you can do.
How can the law help me?

The Police

  • The police are required to report all allegations of domestic violence.
  • In addition, D.C. has a mandatory arrest policy in cases of domestic violence.Thismeans that if the police have probable cause to believe that an intrafamily offense occurred, they will arrest the offender or apply for an arrest warrant, whether you want them to do so or not.

Criminal Prosecution

  • The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia will usually file criminal charges if there was an arrest for domestic violence. If the U.S. Attorney's Office does not start a criminal case on their own, you can ask them about starting one.
  • In a criminal case, it is the U.S. Attorney's Office against the abuser, not you against the abuser. However, as the victim of the crime, you may be called as a witness.
  • Keep in mind that once the U.S. Attorney's Office files a criminal case, it is up to them whether to drop it, not you.

Civil Protection Orders

  • This is a not a criminal case.
  • This is a case that you can file to ask the court to order the abuser to stay away from you and to stop harming you.
  • Importantly, you can file for a civil protection order even if no criminal case is filed.
What is a protection order?

There are two types of protection orders.

Civil Protection Order (CPO):

  • If you prove that the abuser committed an intrafamily offense, the judge can give you a CPO that lasts for up to one year.
  • The CPO can order the abuser to stop hurting or harassing you, to stay away from you and to have no contact with you.
  • If the abuser does not obey the order, the court may take additional steps to protect you, including putting the abuser in jail.

Temporary Protection Order (TPO)

  • In an emergency situation, you can get a temporary protection order on the same day you ask for it.
  • If you prove that your safety and welfare (or that of a family member) is in immediate danger, the judge can issue a temporary protection order.
  • A TPO usually lasts for 14 days.
  • You file your request for a TPO at the same time as your request for a CPO. A hearing on your request for a CPO will be scheduled for a date before the TPO expires.
  • You can let the TPO expire if you feel safe after 14 days, or you can go to the CPO hearing and request a CPO.
  • The abuser has a right to go to the CPO hearing and tell the judge his or her side.
How can a protection order help me?
  • The protection order could order the abuser to stop hurting you, harassing you or threatening you.
  • It could also order the abuser to stay away from you (and your home, school, work, etc.).
  • In some situations, it could also:
    • Order the abuser to leave a home you live in together, provided you own the home, pay rent to stay in the home, or are married to the abuser..
    • Make temporary custody, visitation and support arrangements.
    • Order the abuser to attend counseling programs for domestic violence, parenting skills, or alcohol or drug abuse.
Can a civil protection order put my abuser in jail?

A civil protection order, by itself, will not allow the police to put the abuser in jail. The abuser will be jailed only if criminal charges are filed and he is found guilty or if he violates a civil protection order that has already been issued.

I’m afraid to return home after filing for a CPO.  What are my options?

You have two options:

  • First, you can ask the judge to order the abuser out of the home or apartment as part of the TPO or CPO.
  • Second, if you still worry that the abuser knows where you live despite having a CPO requiring the abuser to leave the home, you can obtain temporary emergency housing.
    • Crime Victims Compensation, located at 515 5th Street NW, Room 109, can connect you with short-term emergency housing so that you do not have to return home after filing for a CPO.
    • You might also consider contacting the District Alliance for Safe Housing at 202-462-3274 (
    • Finally, if you live in public housing or receive a Section 8 housing choice voucher, you may be eligible for an emergency transfer to a new permanent address. If you live in public housing or receive a Section 8 voucher and would like to move to a new address, you should tell the intake counselor at the Domestic Violence Intake Center.
What if I don't live in D.C?

You do not have to be a D.C. resident. The D.C. court can help youif the abuse happened in D.C. or if you work or attend school in D.C.

What about my immigration status?

No one should ask about your immigration status - you do not have to be a legal immigrant to get a TPO or CPO in D.C.

What if the abuse happened a while ago, but now I feel like I need protection?
  • You can file for a CPO up to three years after the abuse.
  • If you can safely file sooner, you might be able to prove your case more easily. It may be harder for the judge to make a decision about something that happened a long time ago.
  • Additionally, the longer you wait to file, the less likely a judge might find the "immediate danger" required to receive an emergency TPO that same day.
How much does a protection order cost?

There is no cost to file for a protection order.

Where can I file for a protection order?
  • The Domestic Violence Intake Center at D.C. Superior Court:
    • Where: 500 Indiana Avenue, NW Washington, DC, Fourth Floor Room 4200.
    • When: Weekdays from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM.
    • Phone: 202-879-0152.
  • The Domestic Violence Intake Center at United Medical Center (formerly Greater Southeast Hospital):
    • Where: 1328 Southern Avenue, SE, Washington, DC, Room 311.
    • When: Weekdays from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM.
    • Phone: 202-561-3000.
Do I need a lawyer to file for a protection order?

No. A counselor at the Domestic Violence Intake Center will be able to help you prepare the forms, file them with the court, and take you to the courtroom.

How do I file for a protection order?
  • If you go to the Domestic Violence Intake Center (DVIC), a counselor will explain the process and help you file a petition describing the history of abuse.
  • After you file the Petition, someone (not you!) must give a copy of the court papers to the abuser. The DVIC counselor will help you arrange this.
  • Upon request, the Metropolitan Police Department will attempt to serve the papers, and may also be able to make arrangements to have the papers served by Maryland law enforcement if the abuser is in Maryland.
I’m having trouble serving the abuser with the papers for the protection order I filed.  What should I do?
  • First, when you first file for the protection order, you can ask the judge to order Metropolitan Police (MPD) to serve the abuser. (You will have to provide the abuser's address.)
  • Second, you can call the Domestic Violence Intake Center at 202-879-0152 and ask to speak with a SAFE Advocate. The SAFE Advocate can ask you some questions and provide you with some suggestions for serving the abuser.
  • Finally, if your hearing day has come and the abuser still has not been served, you can ask the judge for additional time to serve the abuser, which is called a continuance.
What happens at the Civil Protection Order Hearing?

Before the Hearing

  • An attorney-negotiator will be available in the court. The attorney-negotiator will talk with you about what you want, and then will talk to the abuser to see if he or she agrees.
  • If the abuser agrees, you can get a consent order (you write down the agreement and present it to the judge to sign) and you do not have to have a hearing in front of the judge.
  • If the abuser does not agree, the judge will hold a hearing the same day.

At the Hearing

  • The judge will give each of you a chance to testify about what happened.
  • The judge might also listen to any witnesses you bring to testify, and might look at other evidence such as hospital records, police reports or photographs.
  • Depending on the circumstances, the judge might also postpone the hearing (called a "continuance") to allow more time to:
    • gather evidence;
    • serve the abuser with the petition; or
    • find an attorney.
What should I do to prepare for the hearing and what should I bring?
  • To prepare for the hearing, simply be ready to tell the judge what happened and to answer the judge's questions truthfully.
  • If you sustained any injuries from the abuser, you might also want to have a friend take a picture of those injuires (if you feel comfortable asking a friend to do that) or ask your doctor for the medical records of any time you visited the doctor because of injuries from the abuser.
  • You should bring both the pictures and the medical records with you to court as well as anything else that would show the judge how the abuser has treated you such as threatening emails, text messages, or voice mail messages.
  • If friends or neighbors were present when the abuser threatened you, hit you, or hurt you, consider asking the friend or neighbor to come to court with you and to talk to the judge.
I was never injured or I don’t have any pictures or medical records from my injuries.  Can I still obtain a protection order?

Yes, if you don't have any pictures or medical records, you may be able to obtain a protection order. Pictures and medical records are only one way of showing the judge what the abuser has done to you. The judge will still ask you to explain what happened. Even if the abuser has never actually hit your or physically injured you, you may still be able to obtain protection if the abuser has threatened you.

What happens if the abuser doesn't show up?
  • If the abuser has not been served with the Petition, the judge may continue the case to allow more time to try to serve him or her.
  • If the abuser was properly served with the Petition, the judge can go ahead with the hearing (called a "default hearing"). You would tell the judge what happened, and if the judge decides that the abuser committed an intrafamily offense against you, the judge will issue a CPO.
  • The penalty for criminal contempt could be up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1000.
What if I get a CPO and the abuser violates it?
  • Disobeying a CPO is a criminal offense. If the abuser violates any part of the CPO, you can call the police and report it.
  • You can file for civil or criminal contempt, telling the court about the violation. The Domestic Violence Intake Center can assist you with this.
  • The penalty for criminal contempt could be up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1000.
What should I do if I suspect that someone I care about is being abused?

A strong support network can be invaluable for victims of domestic violence. If you suspect that someone you care about may be a victim of domestic violence, here's what you can do to help:

  • Ask if something is wrong. A victim of domestic violence might not feel comfortable telling you about the abuse. By asking if something is wrong, you can show that you care and offer the victim an opportunity to tell you as much as he or she feels comfortable talking about. That said …
  • Don't be pushy or pressure the victim to talk about the abuse. Because of the relationship between the victim and the abuser, accusing someone of domestic violence is often an intensely emotional and difficult experience. Pushing a victim to talk to you about the abuse might push the victim away from you and make the victim feel even more isolated.
  • Tell them you care about them and are there to support them. Follow through on this support. Often, making the victim feel lonely and helpless are some of the abuser's most effective weapons in controlling a victim of domestic violence. Your support and willingness to help the victim could translate into greater strength in standing up to the abuser.
  • Don't be judgmental. For example, asking a victim of domestic violence why he or she has not left the abusive partner often ignores the many difficulties and challenges in escaping the abuse that victims of domestic violence face. Rather than telling a victim of domestic violence what they should do or what you would do under the circumstances, simply ask two questions of the victim: "What do you want to do? And, how can I help you with that?"
  • Follow through on your offer to help. Volunteer to call victim support organizations or to drive them to the Domestic Violence Intake Center or to a doctor or emergency room if the victim requires medical attention. You might also be able to provide many of the things for which the victim ordinarily relies on the abuser, such as food, shelter, and transportation. By helping the victim break free of his or her dependence on the abuser, you make it easier for the victim to remove his- or herself from the abusive environment. You can also collect and provide them with information about domestic violence resources in the District.
  • Don't try to intervene directly with the abuser or to mediate between the victim and the abuser. Placing yourself in the middle of a violent relationship could risk the safety of both yourself and the victim.
  • For more information on how you can help, consider consulting these websites:

Last Review and Update: Mar 20, 2024
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