If you go to the Chittenden Family Court on Thursday mornings, you will see that the docket is busy with relief from abuse cases.
If a family member or household member has been abused by a family member or household member, he/she can file a complaint for relief from abuse. Abuse is not limited to physical harm but can also mean that a party attempted to cause or caused physical harm, a party has placed another in fear of imminent serious physical harm, the children were abused, a sexual assault was committed, or a party was stalked by the household member or family member.
If a person has been harmed by a roommate or significant other with whom they were engaged in a sexual relationship, they are also able to file for a relief from abuse order.
A parent can also file a relief from abuse complaint on behalf of his or her minor child. These matters are treated very seriously by the court. The abused party completes a complaint form and affidavit form, which are available from family court. If you need to obtain a temporary relief from abuse order when the court is not in session (after 4:30 p.m.), then the injured party can contact the local police department. There is always a judge available after hours to review the complaint and affidavit.
It is also suggested that you contact your local police department if there was physical abuse, as the abuser could be charged with domestic assault in criminal court.
Basically, the judge reviews the complaint and affidavit (without a hearing), and if the legal threshold has been met, the judge issues a temporary relief from abuse order, which then must be served on the defendant.
A hearing date is set so that each party can present her/his case before the court and be subject to cross-examination by each party and the judge. A protection order (or a final order) is issued if the party who has alleged abuse has met the legal criteria.
You do not need to hire an attorney to file for a relief from abuse order. Voices Against Violence has advocates at no cost and they will meet you at the courthouse to explain the process and sit at counsel table during the hearing.
If a party is being represented by an attorney at the relief from abuse hearing, you may ask for a continuance to permit you to hire counsel. An attorney from Legal Aid may be able to represent the abused party at no cost.
I have seen parties who are visibly afraid to face their abuser. They may be crying or shaking or have black-and-blue marks on their arms, neck, etc. Many are traumatized by the abuse and may need counseling. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Alcohol, drug use and mental health issues may be present in many of the relief from abuse cases.
An order of protection can be issued for a specific amount of time in which the abuser cannot contact you — including via social media — and he/she must stay away from you and stay away from your vehicle or place of employment.
The key question in the case is not who was at fault, but who, if anyone, needs protection.
Unlike orders that are issued in a divorce or parentage proceeding, the violation of a relief from abuse order is a criminal offense. If the violation is proven, the judge may impose a fine and imprisonment.
Suzanne Brown is an assistant judge for Chittenden Superior Court. The opinions stated in this column are not those of the Vermont judiciary, but are solely Suzanne Brown’s.