What is Domestic Abuse?

Last Updated : April 2, 2024

“Domestic abuse” is a rather general term, which, hopefully, you may never need to know or experience. However, if you are a victim or an alleged abuser, this brief article should give you a basic rundown of Iowa’s domestic abuse statute, how it is applied, and what it means for you.

Domestic Abuse is a Civil Matter

First of all, you should know that domestic abuse actions brought under Iowa Code Chapter 236 are civil in nature; meaning, they do not carry criminal penalties.

For example, if you are on probation for a criminal offense, unless the terms of your probation specifically include it, having a civil no-contact order against you would not affect your criminal probation. However, continually violating a civil protective order may subject you to criminal liability. Moreover, the event(s) which supported a protective order under Chapter 236 could also be used by a prosecutor to bring a criminal no contact order against an alleged abuser.

Qualifying Relationship

In order to obtain a protective order under Chapter 236, there must exist a qualifying relationship between the victim and alleged abuser. There are five different types of qualifying relationships. Essentially, they are:

  1. family or household members + live together at the time of the assault;
  2. separated or divorced spouses + don’t live together at the time of the assault;
  3. parents of the same minor child;
  4. former family or household members + lived together within past year + don’t live together at the time of the assault; &
  5. people in a current or past intimate relationship + had contact with each other within 1 year of the assault.

If your circumstances do not fit into one of these five categories, then this Chapter does not apply to your case.

Definitions of Domestic Violence Terms

You may be wondering what it means when you read words like “assault”, “family or household member”, and “intimate relationship.”

“Assault” generally occurs when another person, without justification, does one of three things:

  • Any act intended to cause pain or injury, or which is intended to cause an insulting or offensive physical contact + apparent ability to act
  • Any act intended to place another in fear of immediate physical contact + apparent ability to act
  • Intentionally point any firearm toward another or display any dangerous weapon in a threatening manner toward another.

“Family or household members” include spouses, people cohabitating together, parents, or other people related to each other by blood or marriage (whether their own or a family member’s), but does not include minor children of any of the above.

“Intimate relationship” means a significant romantic involvement, which need not include a sexual involvement. It does not include casual social relationships or associations in a business or professional capacity. The Court may need to consider certain factors in order to determine whether an actual intimate relationship exists.

Temporary Protective Order & Hearing

If the petition is granted, a temporary protective order will be issued. There are many things the Court can order in a temporary protective order. A few typical examples include keeping the alleged abuser from committing acts of domestic abuse, granting temporary exclusive custody of minor children to the petitioner (for petitions filed on behalf of minor children), and even excluding the abuser from the residence.

After the temporary protective order is entered, a hearing will be held within 5 to 15 days to determine if the temporary order should be dismissed or extended for a longer duration. The Respondent must receive notice of this hearing via personal service from a Sheriff or process server (unless the Court authorizes alternate means of service). It is at this hearing that the Petitioner must prove the allegations of the petition by “a preponderance of the evidence”; meaning, the Petitioner must show the Court enough evidence for the Judge to determine it is more likely than not (or greater than 50%) that domestic abuse occurred. If the Petitioner cannot meet this burden, the Court will dismiss the petition and the temporary protective order will be vacated.

Options at Hearing

At the hearing, or anytime beforehand, a Petitioner may choose to dismiss their petition; however, a Judge may require the Petitioner to answer some questions first. If the Petitioner does not wish to dismiss the petition, the Respondent has three choices: a) deny that domestic abuse occurred but agree to the issuance of a protective order (the Court will not make a finding that domestic abuse occurred); b) agree that domestic abuse occurred and forego a hearing (the Court will make a finding that domestic abuse occurred); or c) deny that domestic abuse occurred and proceed with a hearing.


In certain circumstances, a Petitioner can apply for assistance from the county attorney. There are also standard forms available online and at your local courthouse for those seeking to file petitions for protective orders. Because there is no direct potential of jail time, however, Respondents do not have the right to be appointed an attorney at the hearing. However, the Court may be willing to continue the hearing to a later date if the Respondent makes the request at or before the hearing for the purpose of needing more time to hire an attorney. This is not a guarantee to get the hearing continued and it will likely only be allowed once, absent extraordinary reasons.

Although this brief article is meant to provide a very basic outline of the domestic abuse statute and process, domestic abuse actions are very serious matters for both parties and can have substantial, long-lasting impacts on the lives of the parties as well as any children which they may have in common. Regardless of whether you are an alleged victim or alleged abuser, we strongly recommend you seek the services of a trained family law attorney to guide you through this process and protect your interests.