Step 1: Go to court to file the petition.
As soon as possible after the abuse occurs, go to the Family Court nearest to where you live. You can find contact information for courthouses on the DE Courthouse Locations page. You can also get the forms online at our DE Download Court Forms page.
On the petition, you will be the “petitioner” and the abuser will be the “respondent.” When writing about the incidents of violence, use descriptive language - words like “slapping,” “hitting,” “grabbing,” “threatening,” “choking,” etc., - that fits your situation. Include details and dates, if possible. Be specific.
You may also have to fill out an information sheet, but you are not required to provide your residence or phone number if it will put you in danger to reveal that information (you can ask that the information be kept confidential).1
If you need assistance filling out the form, you can ask the clerk for help2 or a local domestic violence program may be able to help you.
Note: Be sure to wait to sign the forms in front of the court clerk since your signature may have to be notarized. Remember to bring some form of identification (a driver’s license or other identification that includes your picture) to show the clerk.
1 10 Del.C. § 1042(b)
2 10 Del.C. § 1042(d)
Step 2: The ex parte hearing
The commissioner will review your petition in order to decide if you will be granted an emergency (ex parte) order (if you asked for one). If you are granted an emergency (ex parte) order, the order is good until your full hearing, which usually takes place within 15 days (but could be extended and last for up to 30 days).1 If the court does not grant you an emergency (ex parte) order, you may still be given a court date for a full hearing scheduled within the next 30 days.2
1 10 Del. Code § 1043(d)
2 10 Del. Code § 1044(a)
Step 3: Service of process
The abuser must be “served,” or given papers that tell him/her about the hearing date and your emergency (ex parte) order, if the court gave you one.
Whether or not you are granted an emergency (ex parte) order, the clerk of court will prepare a summons. S/he will order that a copy of the summons and petition be served on the respondent named in the petition.
The court will request law enforcement to serve the papers on the abuser. There is no charge to have the authorities serve the abuser. Do not try to serve the papers yourself.
You can find more information about service of process in our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section, in the question called What is service of process and how do I accomplish it?
Step 4: The hearing
A judge will set a hearing date, usually within 15 days of filing your petition; although it could be up to 30 days if the respondent couldn’t be served or for another reason.1 You must go to the hearing or your emergency ex parte order will expire and you will have to start the process over. At the hearing, you and the abuser will have a chance to present evidence, witnesses, etc., to prove your case. The judge has the power to question your child in private in order to verify the claims of either party. The judge can allow both parties’ attorneys to be present and to question the child as well. The judge can allow an unrepresented party to give the judge a list of questions beforehand that the judge can use when examining the child. The judge will then report back to the parties what the child said.2
It is often best to have a lawyer to represent you at the hearing who is familiar with orders of protection from abuse. If you show up to court and the abuser has a lawyer and you do not, you may ask the judge for a “continuance” to set a later court date so you can have time to find a lawyer for yourself. See DE Finding a Lawyer page for legal referrals. If you are representing yourself, see the At the Hearing page for ways you can show the judge that you were abused.
If the abuser has received notice of the hearing, but does not show up, the judge may continue with the hearing or may reschedule the hearing for a future date. If the judge reschedules the hearing, make sure to ask that the emergency order is extended so that you are protected until the new hearing date.
1 10 Del. C. § 1043(d)
2 10 Del. C. § 1042(f)