October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but unfortunately abuse can happen anywhere at any time.

In Virginia, victims of abuse have the option to seek a protective order, but not all protective orders (there are three) are the same. Below, I answer common questions about the process of obtaining a protective order and the potential consequences to the parties after one is enforced.

What is a family abuse protective order?

Protective orders are issued by a court to protect adults and/or children from acts of family abuse. The person seeking the protective order is the “petitioner” and the person accused of family abuse is the “respondent.” An individual can request a protective order for themselves and parents and/or guardians can request a protective order on behalf of their child. Protective orders can include provisions limiting or prohibiting contact between the parties, granting petitioner possession of the residence occupied by parties, requiring a respondent to participate in treatment and/or counseling, awarding child support, and granting temporary custody or visitation for a minor child.

What is considered family abuse in Virginia?

Pursuant to Virginia law, “‘family abuse’ means any act involving violence, force, or threat that results in bodily injury or places one in reasonable apprehension of death, sexual assault, or bodily injury and that is committed by a person against such person’s family or household member. Such act includes, but is not limited to, any forceful detention, stalking, criminal sexual assault in violation of the law or any criminal offense that results in bodily injury or places one in reasonable apprehension of death, sexual assault, or bodily injury.”

What kinds of family abuse protective orders exist?

In Virginia, in cases of family abuse, the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court has jurisdiction over protective order matters and can issue three kinds of protective orders: emergency protective orders (issued by a judge or magistrate), preliminary protective orders (issued by a judge), and “permanent” protective orders (issued by a judge).

Emergency protective orders are in effect for three days (or until the next day the court is in session, whichever is later) and are often times issued ex parte which means the judge or magistrate only hears from the petitioner. Preliminary protective orders are in effect for 15 days (or until a full hearing). “Permanent” protective orders can be in effect for up to two years and may be extended by further court order.

No matter which kind of protective order is issued, it does not go into effect until the order is personally served on the respondent. A petitioner waiting on service of a protective order can contact the law enforcement agency in the county where the protective order was issued to follow up on the status of service of the protective order.

Are family abuse protective orders criminal in nature?

A protective order is a civil order and is not the same as pressing charges. However, there can be far-reaching implications when a protective order is entered against a respondent including, but not limited to, loss of security clearance.

Additionally, acts of family abuse can rise to the level of criminal offenses and can result in criminal charges. Further, violating the terms of a protective order is a crime and can lead to prosecution by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and/or incarceration.

It is important to note that if a protective order prohibits contact between the petitioner and respondent, it must be strictly followed. These terms can be violated by any communication by the respondent with the petitioner, including when a respondent replies to the petitioner’s communications and including indirect communication, e.g. through a third party.

Am I entitled to a lawyer?

Neither a petitioner nor a respondent in a protective order hearing is entitled to an attorney. However, either or both parties may hire an attorney to represent them in a protective order proceeding. Additionally, there are various victim advocate groups in the Commonwealth of Virginia that help victims of domestic violence through the protective order process and provide support during hearings.

During protective order hearings, the petitioner will be required to present evidence to support the request for issuance of a protective order and the respondent will be tasked with defending against the allegations made by the petitioner.  

If you are seeking a protective order or have been served with a protective order, you should consult with an experienced attorney to obtain advice best suited for your matter.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 800-799-7233, TTY 800-787-3224, or by texting “START” to 88788.

For more information, contact Lynette at 301-841-0193 or by email at [email protected].