Domestic Violence – Protecting the Children
Domestic violence affects everyone in the family. Children are often the innocent victims of domestic violence even if they don't suffer direct abuse themselves. Witnessing violence or emotional abuse in the home can cause serious psychological trauma. This article is dedicated to the youngest victims and answering a few frequently asked questions about children and domestic violence.
Do domestic violence laws and restraining orders protect children?
In New Jersey, as well as in the United States in general, different laws and procedures apply to victims of domestic violence, which is usually defined as abuse directed toward a spouse, intimate partner, or other adult household member, and child abuse or neglect, which is generally defined as abuse directed either toward a person's own child or someone else's child in the person's care. Because of these legal distinctions, it's important to identify and follow the appropriate legal procedures for any specific situation.
Temporary and Final Restraining Orders are generally appropriate in a domestic violence situation when the target of abuse is an adult. If you have a child, or are expecting a child, with an abusive partner or former partner, you can obtain protections for the child through the temporary restraining order (TRO) process. Your first step is to ensure everyone's safety: Go to a safe location and take your children with you. In an emergency, always call 911. You can also call the 24-hour New Jersey Domestic Violence Hotline at: 1-800-572-SAFE (1-800-572-7233), or go directly to the police station. You will want to file a police report as evidence in your case. If you have been physically injured, have a friend take photos of any visible injuries, and have a doctor examine you. As soon as possible, get the forms and the help necessary to get the proper protection. Find more: How to File Forms & Understand the Restraining Order Process in a Domestic Violence Case.
A TRO can include temporary custody and support orders for your children, as well as many other forms of relief. You can request a temporary order of sole custody and a "risk assessment" to evaluate the risk of harm to the children from your alleged abuser. Depending on the circumstances, the court can prevent all contact between the alleged abuser and a child or can allow only supervised visitation, at least pending the outcome of the risk assessment.
Regardless of what the court initially orders, you also may want to file a separate motion in family court for sole custody and child support. You do not have to be married to the other parent or seeking a divorce to do this. You may also want to file a criminal complaint against the abuser. An attorney can advise you how best to proceed.
What if your spouse or co-parent is abusing your child?
Regardless of whether or not you are a victim of domestic violence yourself, if you know that your spouse or your child's other parent is abusing your child, you have a responsibility to report the abuse. You can do this anonymously by calling the 24-hour New Jersey Child Abuse Hotline at 1-877 NJ ABUSE (1-877-652-2873). The Hotline is linked to a statewide Special Response Unit after normal business hours. Field investigations are handled by the local DCP&P Office (formerly known in New Jersey as DYFS). The child abuse reporting laws protect a parent who mistakenly reports that the other parent is abusing or neglecting a child, provided that the suspicions of abuse or neglect are reasonable. In fact, anyone who reports child abuse or neglect "in good faith" is immune from civil or criminal penalties as a result of making a report.
Hotline responders will ask you to identify the child and the alleged abuser and provide details of the incident or behavior and any known injuries or ongoing danger. If there is immediate danger, don't hesitate to call 911 in addition to reporting the abuse. If you are able to remove the child to a safe location, do so. If you have nowhere else to go, go to the police station.
Once the immediate danger has passed, the best thing to do is contact an attorney. There are additional steps you can take, including one or more of the following:
- Take photos of any visible injuries,
- Have your child examined by a doctor,
- File a police report (if you have not already done so),
- File a criminal complaint,
- Request a psychological evaluation and appropriate treatment for the allegedly abusive parent, such as substance or alcohol abuse rehabilitation, mental health treatment, or enrollment in an anger management program and
- Request a temporary order of sole custody without visitation by the alleged abuser, pending investigation.
What about false accusations of domestic violence or child abuse?
Unfortunately, false allegations of domestic violence or child abuse are not uncommon, particularly in hotly contested custody cases. If you are involved in a custody or visitation battle, and you ever feel desperate enough to consider making such a false claim, you need to be aware of how damaging this can be. If your claim does not have reasonable support, you may face personal consequences. Moreover, a parent who makes a false allegation of domestic violence or child abuse against the other parent to gain an advantage in a custody case is not just harming the other parent but is also acting against the best interests of the children. Regardless of whether or not the claim ultimately succeeds, the level of conflict in the family will increase. Children may be subjected to intrusive investigations, and some children will experience severe psychological distress.
If you have been falsely accused of domestic violence, contact an attorney immediately. Because domestic violence cases often come down to questions of credibility, preparing a defense can be challenging. If the alleged victim has obtained a TRO, a full hearing will be scheduled within 10 days. If there is no police report or evidence of any emergency call, this can be used to refute the reality of an alleged incident. If there is a report or a call transcript, an attorney will look for discrepancies between the initial reports and the testimony at the initial and final hearings. Reasonable self-defense is also a legal defense to charges of domestic violence.
If you have been falsely accused of child abuse, you will also want to seek attorney assistance as soon as possible.Having representation from the outset of any DCP&P involvement is the best way to ensure a positive outcome.