A Manual for Domestic Violence Attorneys & Advocates Helping Survivors Obtain Protective Orders
This manual is intended to serve as an educational tool 1 for attorneys and advocates working with pet-owning domestic violence survivors in Texas. We hope that this step-by-step approach simplifies the inclusion of pets in protective orders, allowing survivors to take control of their lives and escape abuse along with their pets. The Animal Welfare Institute wishes to thank and acknowledge Cooley, LLP, and its team for their contributions to the drafting of this manual. Edited by Dave Tilford, AWI.
Advocates and attorneys play a crucial role in ensuring that individuals seeking protective orders (applicants) understand and exercise their rights to include their pets in protective orders. There are four crucial steps to this process:
- As early as possible, ask the applicant about any pets, service animals, therapy animals, or any other animals who may live in the home.
- Familiarize yourself with the state’s protective order laws. In Texas, domestic violence protective order laws are codified under Title 4 of the Texas Family Code (§§ 71, 81–88).
- If there has been animal abuse or a threat of animal abuse, gather evidence of this to present at the hearing. (See “Gathering Evidence” below.)
- Help the applicant understand what relief is available to protect the animal, and ensure that the applicant’s requested relief is included in any temporary or extended order.
Ask About Pets
The first step is to ask, during the initial conversation, about the presence of pets or other animals in the home. It is common for individuals experiencing domestic violence not to volunteer that they have a pet. They may assume there are no resources or protections for their pets and therefore believe it is pointless to raise the issue. In addition, under the stress of the circumstances they may forget to mention pet concerns. The following are sample questions to ask:
- Does an animal—a pet, service animal, or support animal—live in your home?
- Has your abuser ever harmed your pet or threatened to harm your pet?
- How did the animal abuse or threat affect you?
- Where is your pet right now?
- Is your pet safe?
- Do you want to ask that the court grant you custody of your pet?
- Do you want to ask that the court order your abuser to stay away from your pet?
- Do you have anything that might help us prove that the abuser has threatened or hurt the animal, e.g., veterinary bills or records, photographs, or eyewitnesses?
It is important to recognize the overall significance of asking about pets; being able to present information about how the abuser has treated animals can be a valuable tool to illustrate the extent of the abuser’s controlling and violent behavior. Knowing whether a pet is involved may help not only the pet but also other abused parties. Many applicants may decide not to leave due to fear of leaving a pet behind, and addressing such concerns increases the likelihood that they will escape an abusive situation themselves.
Discuss Resources for Pets
Reassure the applicant that you will work with them to develop a safety plan for them, their family, and their pet. Does the individual intend to stay with friends or family members, but cannot take their pet? Are they moving into temporary housing or a domestic violence shelter that does not accept pets?
Explain that there are safe havens for pets of domestic violence victims in many communities. Safe havens are sheltering services available in an area that help individuals who are experiencing domestic violence place their companion animals out of harm's way so that they may seek safety for themselves.
Safe havens operate differently from community to community. Some rely on networks of foster care homes or are allowed to use the additional kennel space of a local humane society or veterinarian. In some cases, domestic violence shelters house victims and pets together, while some house only the pets onsite. Depending on the local arrangement, family members may be able to visit their pets while they are in safekeeping. Confidentiality of the pet’s location is highly guarded in order to protect the pets and their family members.
Refer the applicant to the Animal Welfare Institute’s Safe Havens Mapping Project. This is a directory, searchable by zip code, of sheltering services for domestic violence victims and their pets. About 12 percent of safe havens nationwide offer co-housing so that pets can stay with the human victims. Those that offer this are noted in the directory.
Advise the applicant to do the following:
- Keep on hand the phone number of the nearest 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic
- Establish ownership of the pet by creating a paper trail (e.g., obtain a license, have veterinarian records put in the applicant’s name)
- Keep emergency provisions for the pet. Pack a bag for the pet that includes these items:
- documents of ownership (receipts from adoption or purchase of pet, license to establish ownership, receipts for animal purchases)
- health documents (veterinary or vaccination records)
- ID and rabies tag, if a dog or cat (these will also help establish ownership)
Finally, in some circumstances where the animal and client are separated, such as one involving a visit to the emergency room, the advocate or attorney may need to ensure that the animal is safe. Following a domestic violence call, the animal may be taken into custody by animal control and need to be claimed and transferred to safety later.
Texas Family Violence Protective Order Laws2
Texas law provides that any adult member of a family or household may seek relief in the form of a protective order by filing an application with the court describing the claim of family violence.3 Texas’s protective order laws allow the abused victim to obtain both short-term relief, in the form of a temporary ex parte protective order (obtained without the accused individual’s participation in the proceedings), and long-term relief through a final protective order. A temporary protective order lasts until a hearing can be held on the final order, which generally will occur in about two weeks. A final protective order generally lasts two years.
Completing the Protective Order Application
The applicant may file the complaint in the district court within the county in which (1) the applicant resides, (2) the abuser (respondent) resides, or (3) the family violence occurred.4 The applicant must complete the application form and either an accompanying affidavit or a declaration5 that describes who committed the family violence, when it occurred, who was abused, and the nature of the violence.
TexasLawHelp.org6 has a comprehensive “toolkit” website designed to walk applicants through the process and answer any questions. The site features a Protective Order Kit that contains the official protective order application form and the forms needed to file either an affidavit or declaration. The kit includes instructions on how to fill out the forms, FAQs, and information on other resources. The blank forms used to apply for a final protective order begin on page 13 of the kit. The blank forms used to apply for a temporary ex parte protective order begin on page 25.
A second option provided on the toolkit website is the Guided Application Form. This interactive form works much like popular do-it-yourself tax software in that it will generate a completed form based on a series of questions the applicant answers online.
Within 14 days after the applicant files the application (unless the applicant requests a later date), the court must conduct a hearing on the request for a final protective order, during which both the applicant and respondent can present evidence regarding the applicant’s requested relief. Upon a finding that family violence has occurred and is likely to occur in the future, the court may grant a final protective order applying to the person found to have committed the violence.7
Including Pets on the Protective Order Form
Although Texas does not include harm to pets as a basis in and of itself to justify a protective order, the applicant should include examples of prior animal abuse or threats of abuse in the application. Importantly, prior acts of animal cruelty could be relevant in showing how the respondent’s actions placed the applicant in fear of physical injury to the applicant or the applicant’s pet, and may therefore demonstrate how the respondent’s conduct fits into the cycle of violence.
Pets can, however, be protected by the order. To include pets on a protective order, an applicant should check and fill in item k in section 6 (Orders to Prevent Family Violence) on the application form, whereby the applicant asks the court to “Prohibit the Respondent from harming, threatening, or interfering with the care, custody, or control of the following pet, companion animal or assistance animal_____________________ (describe the animal).”
Gathering Evidence for the Hearing
Fact-Gathering Questions to Ask the Petitioner
Before completing the petition, an attorney or advocate should ask the applicant the questions listed in the section titled “Ask About Pets” above. The answers to these questions will help the evidence-gathering process for the hearing and offer the court a more comprehensive scope of the circumstances.
If the respondent has threatened to harm either the applicant’s animal or the respondent’s own animal, ask the applicant what the respondent specifically said. The statement should be admissible under evidence rules as an admission by a party opponent. Ask where and when the statement occurred, and if someone else may have heard the threat (e.g., a neighbor, another occupant of the home, or someone else present). Have the applicant describe the circumstances, including the topic of conversation and body language.
If the respondent physically hurt the pet, gather as many details as possible. In particular, find out if the animal needed veterinary care. If so, collect any evidence of the visit and consider if a subpoena of the animal hospital is appropriate. Either way, find out if any photos were taken and, if the abuse was recent, help the applicant record photo evidence.
In addition to the fine details, be sure to capture the bigger picture of abuse. Have the applicant describe the series of events that led up to the incident of abuse as well as any past instances of conflict. What does the applicant believe motivated the abuse? How did the applicant react to the abuse? How did the respondent act afterward? Did the abuse serve as an effective controlling behavior? For example, did the abuse prevent the applicant from leaving the home or going somewhere?
Remember, it is extremely important that the court understands how the animal abuse fits into abusive behavior generally. Because not everyone recognizes the value of pets, being able to demonstrate with evidence that the respondent used the pet as a means to control the client is crucial to convincing the court of the role animal abuse plays in domestic violence.
There are several common pieces of evidence that you may want to introduce:
- Statements made by the respondent
- Veterinary records
- Photographs of injuries
- Evidence of prior animal abuse
- Prior convictions for animal abuse
- Testimony of a police officer
- Testimony of a veterinarian
Check the Texas rules of evidence8 to develop a response to possible objections to their admissibility.
Federal Domestic Violence Law: Paws Act
Although the process of obtaining a protection order is a civil matter, not a criminal one, violation of a protection order once it is in place is a crime under state law, punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. In some circumstances, it will also be a crime under federal law. In 2018, the provisions of the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act were signed into law as part of the federal farm bill. The PAWS Act added language to Title 18, Chapter 110A of the US Code9—which pertaining to interstate domestic violence and interstate stalking—that heightens protection for animals in situations involving protection order violations and stalking.
Interstate violation of a protection order occurs when someone crosses state lines (or by force, coercion, duress, or fraud causes another person to cross state lines) with the intent to engage in conduct that violates or would violate a protection order’s prohibition “against violence, threats, or harassment against, contact or communication with, or physical proximity to, another person or the pet, service animal, emotional support animal,10 or horse of that person.”11
Interstate stalking occurs when someone engages in conduct intending to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate another person (or place that person under surveillance for such purposes), so that it either
- causes the person to have reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury to themselves; their immediate family members, their spouse or intimate partner; or their pet, service animal, emotional support animal, or horse, or
- “causes, attempts to cause, or would be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress” to the person, their immediate family members, or their spouse or intimate partner,
AND such behavior occurs when the stalker is either
- traveling in interstate or foreign commerce,12 or
- using “mail, any interactive computer service or electronic communication service or electronic communication system of interstate commerce, or any other facility of interstate or foreign commerce.”13
It is important to emphasize that the latter provision means that stalking conducted via mail or computers—whether or not physical travel is involved—constitutes interstate stalking because use of the US mail and the electronic devices themselves involves activities that venture beyond state lines.
Federal authorities, not local and state law enforcement officers, are tasked with prosecuting violations of federal law. However, the Department of Justice recommends reporting such crimes, especially in an emergency, to the local authorities. The local district attorney will refer appropriate cases to a US attorney’s office. Victims and advocates also may wish to contact their local US attorney’s office or the Federal Bureau of Investigation directly. Each US attorney’s office has an Office of Violence Against Women contact person to take referrals under the interstate stalking law. Click on the links below for office locations:
Forms and Resources
- TexasLawHelp.org: Overview — contains general information on how to obtain a protective order in Texas, as well as link to the resources listed below.
- Texas Advocacy Project
- Protective Orders, Domestic Violence Convictions, and Firearms – a short overview, published by the Texas Advocacy Project and the Battered Women’s Justice Project
- Texas Council on Family Violence
- The Animal Welfare Institute’s Safe Havens Mapping Project: a state-by-state, zip-code searchable listing of safe haven programs
- WomensLaw.org: Texas family violence protective orders
- Red Rover Safe Escape grants
1. The information provided in this manual should not be considered legal advice.
2. In Texas, there are different kinds of protective orders for instances of domestic abuse, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, and human trafficking. This manual deals only for protective orders related to domestic abuse.
4. Tex. Fam. Code §82.003.
5. There is a privacy issue to consider with respect to whether to include an affidavit or a declaration: If, in addition to the application, the applicant submits a notarized affidavit detailing the family violence, then the applicant’s date of birth and address will be kept confidential. If, however, the applicant completes and submits a declaration with the application, then the applicant’s date of birth and address become public information.