Steve Urkel on the old sitcom “Family Matters” was often heard saying “Did I do that?” When Urkel did it, it was scripted, make-believe and designed for a laugh. However, there is a much different context in which this phrase comes up more often than many people ever realize: Domestic Violence. Although domestic violence has been the subject of much more open discussions in the past few years, people still seem surprised to find out a) what constitutes domestic violence and b) they—or someone they know- have been engaged in it *ostensibly* without realizing it.
There is still a very common misconception that domestic violence is a physical assault, that only getting “beat up” counts as Domestic Violence. By logical extension then, it is extraordinary common to hear “But they didn’t hit me” or “But I didn’t hit them”. Domestic Violence is so much more than physical abuse. It does not require hitting to be considered an act of domestic violence. In fact, of the 19 different crimes that can constitute domestic violence in the State of New Jersey, several of them do not require any touching at all, let alone getting “beat up”. New Jersey recognizes the following acts as those that can qualify as domestic violence such that a Victim may obtain a Temporary Restraining Order and possibly a Final Restraining Order:
- Terroristic Threats
- Criminal Restraint
- False Imprisonment
- Sexual Assault
- Criminal Sexual Contact
- Criminal Mischief
- Criminal Trespass
- Criminal Coercion
- Cyber Harassment
- Contempt of DV Order
- Any Other Crime Involving Risk of Death or Serious Bodily Injury
As is evident from the list, a variety of different crimes can constitute domestic violence. No hitting is needed as a condition of an act of domestic violence occurring, let alone obtaining protection from abuse. Any one, or combination, of the listed crimes within a specific context can be domestic violence in New Jersey. The reason why non-physical crimes are included as acts of domestic violence has been stated by our Supreme Court: the law was designed to “intervene …before the victim has actually been physically attacked”. H.E.S. v. J.C.S., 175 N.J. 309 (2003)
In New Jersey, the Prevention Against Domestic Violence Act makes the occurrence of any of the acts identified above actionable if it was committed within the context of a familial-type relationship. Specifically, New Jersey recognizes the right to seek protection under the Prevention Against Domestic Violence Act where the parties are or have been married/Civil Union partners, divorced, present household members, were at any time a household member, co-parents, expectant parents and/or have had a dating relationship and one of the enumerated recognized forms of domestic violence has been alleged. Thus, domestic violence is not limited to just to romantic partners (past or present) and again, does not necessarily require physical abuse, or even the threat of physical touching, to qualify as domestic violence. (The list of qualifying crimes can still be actionable under the criminal code in the absence of the requisite relationship but not under the Prevention Against Domestic Violence Act.)
The biggest factor in domestic violence is not even listed—the mental/emotional control and fear motivated by these actions. Often by the time domestic violence has gotten to the point of physical manifestation such as assault, battery, etc., various non-physical manifestations have already occurred. Domestic violence has a way of escalating as it progresses. It is not uncommon for a victim to acknowledge that before being the object of their abuser’s physical attacks, they were the victim of verbal and/or emotional attacks (harassment, terroristic threats) or non-physical domination (stalking, cyber harassment) or that while this may have been the first time they were struck, the abuser had been known to destroy things before it escalated to a personal physical attack on the victim (criminal mischief).
Sadly, there are plenty of people- victims and abusers- that do not recognize these actions as domestic violence. They assume, wrongfully, that because no hitting, or even touching, has occurred, it cannot be domestic violence. That is not correct. Non-physical acts can be just as damaging as physical acts, possibly worse. A bruise or a broken bone may heal, a battered psyche may not.
Take for example, text messages, Instant Messages, Snap Chat, Facebook, Tweets and/or emails and the like. If one person is making comments that are deliberately intended to annoy and/or alarm another and they refuse to stop, that can be domestic violence. Following someone, either online, in person, visually or electronically, and tracking their movements can be domestic violence. Slashing someone’s tires can be domestic violence.
At the core of domestic violence abuse is a desire by the victim to be left alone, to be left in peace, free from torment, physical, mental and/or emotional. If you or someone you know is either engaging in these behaviors and/or on the receiving end of them, you could be involved in a domestic violence dynamic even if you did not realize it. Ask yourself: Did I infringe on someone else’s right to be left alone? If yes, then yes, you did do that.
Julie Burick, Esq. is a partner at Adinolfi, Molotsky, Burick & Falkenstein, P.A. She focuses her practices on all aspects of divorce and family law to include representing our clients in domestic violence matters.