In Virginia, emotional abuse is classified as domestic violence. A victim of domestic violence can file a petition with the local juvenile and domestic relations district court for a protective order. There are three types of protective orders: an emergency protective order, a preliminary protective order and a protective order.
If the emotional abuse involved a criminal act, such as child abuse, the victim should call 911 if it is an emergency. If it is not an emergency, they should call law enforcement and file a report.
Definition of Emotional Abuse Under Virginia Law
Emotional abuse covers a number of actions, including:
- Calling the victim degrading names.
- Diminishing the victim’s sense of self-worth.
- Threatening harm to the victim or their family.
- Torturing pets, which is animal abuse, a criminal offense.
- Destroying personal property, which is a criminal offense.
- Isolation of the victim.
Isolation techniques include monitoring and criticizing the victim’s contacts with friends or family and denying the victim access to a vehicle.
A victim can take steps to counter emotional abuse by leaving the abuser, finding another place to live and denying the abuser access to their personal property, particularly their vehicle. The victim can also seek a divorce from the abuser.
Handling Emotional Abuse
One way to handle emotional abuse is to file for a protective order or an order pendente lite, meaning an order pending a court proceeding. Typically, emotional abuse is not a crime and is not illegal.
There are exceptions, such as when the behavior involves an action that Virginia statutes define as illegal, like stalking. If the emotional abuse constitutes abuse and neglect of vulnerable adults or abuse and neglect of children, it is illegal.
Abuse of Specified Groups
The laws regarding abuse and neglect of children and vulnerable adults cover all types of abuse and neglect, including physical acts that result in serious injuries. The abuse and neglect statutes for vulnerable adults apply to “any responsible person,” meaning an individual who has a legal duty to care for the vulnerable adult.
The abuse and neglect statutes for children apply to a parent, guardian or other person responsible for the care of a child under 18.
Penalties for Abuse Under Virginia State Law
An act of abuse or neglect that does not result in a serious bodily injury to a vulnerable adult is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year of incarceration and a fine up to $2,500. Conviction of a second or subsequent offense against a vulnerable adult is a Class 6 felony, punishable by between one to five years' incarceration.
Alternatively, in the discretion of the jury trying the case or the court trying the case without a jury, a Class 6 felony is punishable by up to one year of incarceration and a fine up to $2,500.
An act of child abuse or neglect that causes or permits serious injury to the life or health of the child is a Class 4 felony. Such an offense is punishable by between two years and 10 years of incarceration and a fine up to $100,000. There are more severe penalties for other specific acts relating to the abuse and neglect of vulnerable adults and children.
Getting a Protective Order
If the person of concern is a family or household member, the person who wants to be protected can request a family abuse protective order through their local intake office of the juvenile and domestic relations district court. The petitioner files a petition for the order with the court.
The person to be restrained by the order is called the respondent. If the respondent does not meet the definition of a family or household member, the petitioner should file for a protective order with the general district court. Dating and same-sex partners who do not live together are not considered family or household members.
Duration of a Protective Order
An emergency protective order expires at the end of the third day after it is issued or the next day that court is in session, whichever is later. A preliminary protective order lasts for 15 days or until a full hearing. A protective order may last up to two years.
The laws regarding domestic violence and protection orders are distinguished from child protective services (CPS) laws in Virginia.
Filing for a Protective Order
There is no cost for a petitioner to file for a protective order. Filing for a protective order will require the petitioner to state the respondent’s name, address (not a P.O. box) and identifying information. The petitioner must also provide a full description of the event that led them to seek a protective order.
The petitioner should further bring any information about a warrant alleging an act of violence, force or threat.
Suing in Civil Court
A victim of emotional abuse may have grounds to file a civil lawsuit for damages against the person who has caused them a concern. A victim can represent themselves; they do not need a family law attorney. A skilled torts attorney can provide them with legal advice as well as representation in Virginia court.
Virginia tort law covers two types of emotional distress: negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). For a NIED case, three elements must be present:
- Defendant was negligent (failed to take proper care in doing something).
- Negligence was a direct cause of the emotional distress that naturally resulted in physical injury to the plaintiff.
- Plaintiff suffered damages as a result of the defendant’s negligent act.
The plaintiff has the burden of proving all three issues.
Elements of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
For an IIED case, four elements must be present:
- Defendant had the specific purpose of inflicting emotional distress upon the plaintiff, intending the specific conduct and knowing, or in a position to know, that their conduct would likely result in emotional distress.
- Defendant’s conduct was outrageous and intolerable because it offended the generally accepted standards of decency and morality.
- Plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress.
- Defendant’s conduct directly caused plaintiff’s severe emotional distress.
The plaintiff has the burden of proof on all four issues. In civil court, the plaintiff usually sues for money damages. If a victim of emotional abuse has suffered additional damages for other acts by the defendant, such as destruction of property, this should be a separate claim in the civil lawsuit.
- Attorney General of Virginia: Domestic violence
- Virginia Courts: What you need to know about protective orders
- Code of Virginia: Section 18.2-369, Abuse and neglect of vulnerable adults; penalties
- Code of Virginia: Section 18.2-371.1, Abuse and neglect of children; penalty; abandoned infant
- Virginia Courts.gov: Virginia civil model jury instructions
- Code of Virginia: Section 18.2-11, Punishment for conviction of misdemeanor
- Code of Virginia: Section 18.2-10, Punishment for conviction of felony; penalty
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.