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Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell on April 15 signed into law a bill that greatly expands and streamlines Virginia’s protective order statute, filling a gaping hole in the current law and providing better access to protection for many of Tahirih’s clients. Protective orders, more commonly known as restraining orders, are civil court orders issued to victims of violence which make it a punishable offense for abusers to have continued contact with the victim, and are a key tool in protecting victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

Under the past system, Virginia had two separate tracks for obtaining a protective order, both of which had different qualifying standards, making it very difficult for certain groups to obtain protection in the state. The first track allowed someone being abused by a family or household member to obtain a “family abuse” protective order. The second track allowed individuals who were being abused by someone who fell outside the definition of family or household members to obtain a stalking/serious injury protective order from a different court only if a criminal warrant for the abuser has been issued.

In summary, under the first track someone had to be related to, have a relationship via marriage or a mutual child with, or be residing in the same household as the abuser. Otherwise, to obtain a protective order through the second track, an individual must have already survived a crime so serious that the police issued a warrant for the arrest of the perpetrator. The practical effect of this two track system was that many victims of violence—such as those in dating relationships or who were being threatened or abused by extended family members—were unable to obtain protective orders crucial to keeping them safe.

Tahirih has often served clients desperately in need of protective orders who did not qualify for assistance under the old two-track system. For example, a Tahirih client, Maria,* recently asked for help obtaining a protective order against her ex-boyfriend. At the time, Maria was pregnant with her ex-boyfriend’s child. He had a history of abuse against Maria, but the two were not married and had never lived together. In addition, Maria never called the police to report the abuse, so her ex-boyfriend had no outstanding criminal warrant. Under the old law, Maria could not get a protective order while she was pregnant because she did not have a qualifying “family” relationship with her abuser until their child was born. Under the new system, Maria will be able to apply for a protective order immediately.

Thankfully, Maria and thousands of other survivors throughout Virginia will soon be able to obtain the relief they deserve. The new consolidated protective order statute, which will take effect on July 1, 2011, expands and streamlines relief available to victims of violence. The new statute eliminates the need for a criminal warrant to be issued in cases of non-family or non-household member abuse and instead allows victims to seek a protective order based solely on the abuse suffered. It also aligns the penalties for violating both “family abuse” protective orders and all other protective orders, requiring arrests for all violations of either type and increasing the mandatory minimum sentences non “family abuse” protective orders to be the same as “family abuse” protective orders.

Attorneys from Tahirih’s legal and policy departments advocated alongside the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance to lobby for these important changes. The new law aligns Virginia’s protective order statute with the approach used by the majority of jurisdictions nationwide, and will provide Tahirih’s Virginia clients with better options when fleeing abuse.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy