BY STEPHEN M. HALSEY – GUEST COLUMNIST
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Every day in every district court in Minnesota, judges hear cases involving domestic violence. It could be a hearing for an order for protection against a spouse or significant other, or a criminal charge of domestic assault, or even a juvenile delinquency petition against a minor for assaulting a household member. Domestic violence touches thousands of homes in Minnesota every day, including where you live.
About 10 years ago a pastor I know in a Twin Cities suburb chose the topic of domestic violence for a Sunday sermon. During the following week the pastor received phone calls from some parishioners who were upset with the sermon because “that just doesn’t happen in our town.” Anyone who feels the same way should spend one morning in their local courthouse to see how many of their neighbors are touched by domestic violence. I know they would be shocked. Many of the defendants (alleged abusers) are repeat offenders, often against the same victim.
Victims of domestic violence have the remedy of filing in court a petition for an order for protection. The forms are available on the state court website at mncourts.gov/forms. The petition is filed with the court with no filing fee or service of process fees required. The petitioner and respondent must have a relationship which includes one of the following: husband/wife; former husband/wife; living together currently; lived together; have a child together; have an unborn child together; parent/child relationship; related by blood; significant romantic or sexual relationship.
The judge may issue an emergency order against the respondent without any prior notice, which order can include the following if there is the imminent danger of further domestic violence to the victim:
1. No contact with petitioner
2. No contact with child(ren) of the parties or in petitioner’s care
3. Exclusion from petitioner’s residence and place of work
4. Child support
5. Possession of personal property, such as vehicles
6. Child visitation, with or without restrictions; visitation may be ordered at a supervised visitation center if the children are the victims of abuse.
7. Respondent to attend domestic abuse counseling
8. Temporary custody of children may be granted to petitioner.
The respondent is then personally served with the order and petition by a deputy sheriff. A hearing is either held within seven days, or the respondent may request a hearing if none is initially ordered. Pending a hearing, the respondent is generally ordered to have no contact of any kind with the petitioner, including phone, email or text message communications. If domestic violence has occurred against a child, the court will appoint a guardian to advocate for the child and advise the court as to what is in the best interests of the child.
At the hearing the respondent may admit the facts alleged by petitioner, may agree to a restraining order without any findings of fact that domestic abuse occurred, or may deny the allegations and have a hearing. If the matter is contested, witnesses give sworn testimony, and the judge decides if the petitioner has proven that domestic abuse has occurred.
Domestic abuse is defined by statute as physical harm; bodily injury or assault; infliction of fear of imminent physical harm; bodily injury or assault; terroristic threat; criminal sexual conduct; or interference with emergency call.
If domestic abuse is not proven, the petition is dismissed. Without evidence of one of the above elements of the conditions defined in the statute, the court cannot conclude there has been “domestic abuse.” It is insufficient for the petitioner to prove bad parenting or poor judgment.
If the petitioner proves domestic abuse, then an order for protection is issued, which may include the relief indicated above, as well as, paying child care costs and medical insurance costs; monetary support for petitioner; monetary damages to the petitioner as a result of the domestic violence; and alcohol/chemical abuse counseling;. Prohibiting possession of a firearm by the respondent is a mandatory federal law.
An order for protection may be issued for a period of up to two years. Either party may make a motion to modify the order while it is in effect.
A frequent occurrence of great concern to the court is that petitioners often come back shortly after the order for protection is issued and request dismissal, sometimes stating they were forced to file the petition by a family member or friend, or that “everything is fine now and respondent promises to go to treatment.” Sometimes judges will not grant the dismissal of the order for protection unless the petitioner provides sworn testimony as to why the respondent is no longer a danger to the petitioner or the children. Judges frequently encourage victims to meet with domestic violence counselors before the orders are dismissed.
Domestic violence continues to be a major public health problem in our communities. Children are being raised in homes where parents are using chemicals to excess, arguing all the time and sometimes resorting to physical violence in the presence of their children. This creates a “circle of violence” in which children grow up to be abusers or victims, because that is what they grew up with in their families.
Domestic violence is a pervasive problem with which we should all be concerned. Many resources are available by contacting:
• The Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, mcbw.org
• “Men as Peacemakers” at menaspeacemakers.org;
• Alexandra House at 763-780-2330 or alexandrahouse.org
• Rivers of Hope at 763-295-3433 or riversofhope.org.
Judge Steve Halsey of Wright County District Court is chambered in Buffalo.