“Domestic violence occurs every seven minutes in New Jersey,” reported NBC10 in August 2013. In 2010 alone, 74,244 incidents of domestic violence were reported within New Jersey. In 2011, although the incidents dropped to 70,311, the cases involving homicide increased by 5%. Moreover, while domestic violence was predominantly perpetrated against women, 24% of the cases involved male victims. The number of reported cases dropped to 65,060 in 2012 and further decreased to 64,556 in 2013, according to the New Jersey State Police Report for the year ending 2013. However, the cases that ended in the murder of the victim increased by 13% that year.

Definition of Domestic Violence in New Jersey

The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 1991 defines domestic violence as the occurrence of one or more of the following acts: homicide, assault, terrorist threats, kidnapping, criminal restraint, false imprisonment, sexual assault, criminal sexual contact, lewdness, criminal mischief, burglary, criminal trespass, harassment, stalking, criminal coercion, robbery, contempt of a domestic violence Order, or any other crime involving risk of death or serious bodily injury to a person protected under the Act.

Not just anyone can claim themselves as a “victim” of domestic violence under the Act. A victim must be 18 years or older (or an emancipated minor) and a spouse, former spouse, current or former household member of the aggressor. Additionally, a victim may be someone who, regardless of age, has a child with the aggressor, anticipates having a child with the aggressor if one of the parties is pregnant or is/has been involved in a dating relationship with the aggressor. In other words, the abuser may be a spouse, former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, gay or lesbian partner, a family member, a roommate, a caretaker or anyone who lives or has lived with the victim.

The abuser, however, must be at least 18 years old or an emancipated minor. In other words, an unemancipated minor cannot be prosecuted as a domestic violence defendant. Instead, his/her acts may be addressed in accordance with New Jersey’s Juvenile Delinquency laws.

Even assuming the abuser is 18 years old (or an emancipated minor), a victim may still have recourse if they are not necessarily considered a “victim” as defined by the Act. For example, a current girlfriend generally cannot pursue a restraining order under the Act against her significant other’s ex. In such circumstances, the victim should contact the police and file criminal charges. Such a criminal complaint must be filed where the act occurred, where the abuser resides, where the victim resides, or where the victim is sheltered or temporarily staying.

Notably, the Act does not define the victim or the aggressor on the basis of gender. This is considered a progressive element of this Act because it includes the LGBT community as potential victims of domestic violence.

Legal Rights of a Victim of Domestic Violence in New Jersey

New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act was further strengthened when the United States Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act in 1996 (VAWA). Under VAWA, one state must enforce a restraining order of another state should the victim relocate to protect him/herself.

There are many more protective measures afforded to victims of domestic abuse in New Jersey. According to WomensLaw.org, these include special housing laws wherein a victim may terminate his/her tenancy before the lease is up, as well as the right to sue your abuser for medical costs and lost wages. In a groundbreaking decision taken by the New Jersey Appellate Division on March 16, 2015, the law accrues unemployment benefits to a victim of domestic violence if he/she is forced to leave a job to escape from abuse. If proof of victimization can be provided, a family law attorney may help a victim of domestic violence to obtain unemployment benefits, according to an article published in the Ruvolo Law blog.

Therefore, there are numerous legal rights accorded to victims of domestic abuse in the state of New Jersey to help them escape the dangerous environment and rehabilitate or punish the perpetrator. However, the lack of awareness of these rights remains one of the central reasons for the persistence of such violence. The first step towards closing this traumatic chapter is finding competent legal aid who can help one understand and act upon his/her rights, as well as empowering him/her to live an independent and safe life free of abuse.