Victims of domestic violence in Middlesex County, NJ, can get legal protection from their abusers by obtaining a restraining order. In New Jersey, restraining orders can be tailored to cover numerous issues, including awarding temporary custody and even blocking an alleged abuser from making contact with their child. How can a restraining order affect your custody rights? If your child is endangered along with you, how can you structure the restraining order to protect you both? Attorney Joseph D. Lento has helped many people in New Jersey navigate the complex intersection between restraining orders and child custody laws. Let's answer some common questions about restraining orders in Middlesex County and how they can affect child custody.
What are restraining orders in New Jersey?
A restraining or protective order is designed to prevent or stop abuse against a victim (the plaintiff) by their alleged abuser (the defendant). A restraining order not only prohibits the defendant from abusing the plaintiff, but it may also them not to contact the defendant or even to come within a specified distance. Violating the restraining order can result in criminal charges. In New Jersey, restraining orders only protect victims from those with whom they have an intimate or familial relationship; other types of protective orders may apply outside these relationships.
Additional details may be added to restraining orders in order to address particular situations. For example:
- The defendant may be banned from contacting the plaintiff, their family, or their place of employment.
- The defendant may be expressly forbidden to own or possess firearms.
- The defendant may be mandated to provide financial assistance to the plaintiff, including payment for rent/mortgage or other bills.
- The defendant may be required to attend counseling or therapy.
- The plaintiff may be granted temporary custody of the children, and the defendant may be given specific conditions for seeing them.
Who can apply for a restraining order in New Jersey?
New Jersey's restraining order laws are designed to protect victims aged 18 and older from acts of domestic violence. You may be eligible to obtain a restraining order if the following two conditions apply:
- You have a family or intimate relationship with the alleged abuser. (Examples include spouses, ex-spouses, intimate partners, household members, someone you have had a child with, or current/former dating relationships.)
- The alleged abuse falls in the category of domestic violence according to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA) (Examples include physical assault, sexual assault, false imprisonment, terroristic threats, stalking, harassment, kidnapping, etc.)
How do I obtain a restraining order in Middlesex County, NJ?
You can petition for a restraining order in Middlesex County by going to the Middlesex Family Courthouse at 120 New St. in New Brunswick and filing the appropriate forms. The courthouse is open from 8:30 am – 4:30 pm Monday-Friday. If you need an emergency temporary restraining order after hours, on weekends, or on a holiday, the best course of action is to call your local police, who can put you in touch with an on-call judge.
I have been notified that I am subject to a restraining order. What is the process from here?
In many cases, if not most, you will first be served with a temporary restraining order (TRO), which the plaintiff can obtain “ex parte,” meaning in your absence. This order is effective immediately and can stay in effect up to 10 days—and if you fail to comply with the order, you could be charged with criminal contempt. You'll also be notified when to appear at Middlesex Family Court for your official restraining order hearing (typically within 10 days of the TRO. At that point, you will be permitted to appear and tell your story, preferably with an attorney present to represent you. The judge will decide whether to issue a final restraining order (FRO). The TRO will become a FRO if it is granted. The FRO has no expiration date, and you must adhere to its terms until the FRO is canceled by the courts. Failure to appear at the hearing may result in the judge deciding against you and completing the FRO.
What effect can a restraining order have on my ability to see my children?
If you have children in common with the plaintiff, the restraining order may award them temporary custody of the children if the courts see you as a risk to the children. The order may also greatly restrict or revoke any visitation rights you currently have. You'll need to schedule custody hearings in the future to iron out more permanent custody and/or visitation arrangements.
Do I have the right to challenge the restraining order, especially if it cuts me off from my children?
Temporary restraining orders (TROs) cannot be challenged. For the 10 or so days that the TRO is in effect, you must comply with any restrictions concerning your children. The final hearing will allow you to challenge the restraining order, including any terms that may affect your visitation or custody rights. If the court agrees to the restraining order, it may either uphold the existing custody/visitation restrictions or modify them.
Does the restraining order override my current custody arrangements?
If it specifically addresses custody issues, yes. If the court believes your children are in danger from you, a TRO can temporarily stop contact with them. FROs can also grant temporary custody to the plaintiff, which effectively ends any existing custody arrangements. The courts will require you to renegotiate any permanent or visitation arrangements at a later date.
Parents sometimes use the New Jersey restraining order custody provisions to temporarily take custody of their children instead of going through the lengthy process of challenging custody agreements. An experienced attorney can help you to challenge a restraining or other legal order that has been improperly used to prevent you from having access to your children.
If I ignore the custody terms of my restraining order and visit my children, what happens then?
Violation of any portion of a restraining order is considered “criminal contempt” in New Jersey. This is a fourth-degree felony offense. You could be sentenced to up to 18 months imprisonment and a $10,000 fine if you are convicted of criminal contempt—this in addition to any other criminal charges that you may face regarding alleged domestic violence. You could also face future custody proceedings if you violate the restraining orders. No matter how much you disagree with the restraining order, you are better off obeying it. Consult an attorney to see about legitimate ways to mount a legal challenge to the restraining order.
Do I have to continue paying child support even if my custody rights are revoked by a restraining order?
Yes. Your restraining order does not exempt you from any child support obligations you may currently have. Furthermore, the restraining order may also require you to handle other financial obligations for the plaintiff. This may include paying rent or mortgage even if you have been required to leave your home.
If there are no prior custody arrangements, can a restraining or grant custody?
Yes. If you were living with your spouse and children at home prior to the restraining order being issued, you would have shared custody by default. The restraining order may give temporary custody to your spouse and provide visitation and visiting conditions until permanent custody can be negotiated.
Do I lose custody permanently if the Final Restraining Order gives custody to my ex?
No. A FRO only grants temporary custody. You'll have other opportunities to modify these custody restrictions at custody hearings at a later date.
Can a minor obtain a restraining order?
Not unless the minor has been legally “emancipated” from their parents or guardian. However, if a child under age 18 is being abused or is in danger, the parent may request a restraining order and name the child as a “protected person” within the order. This extends the protections of the restraining order to the named child.
Restraining orders in New Jersey can have a profound impact on custody rights. It can be confusing to understand your rights when it comes to how custody arrangements intersect with a restraining order. An experienced attorney can help you explore your options for enforcing custody rights and challenging unfair or improper restraining orders. Joseph D. Lento, a New Jersey attorney with extensive experience, has helped many clients deal with the complexities of restraining orders and how they affect custody. If you've been served with a restraining order in Middlesex County, NJ, or if you are facing criminal charges for violating a restraining order, contact the Lento Law Firm today at (888) 535-3686 to discuss your case and explore your options.