Restraining Orders Do Work: High-Profile Failures Obscure effectiveness – Published in The Concord Monitor on Friday, September 26, 1997
It is true that restraining orders have not prevented some women from being murdered. Kimberly Luele, Dawn Gagne, Jean Glover – these New Hampshire women, among others, all had restraining orders at the time of their death. but does that mean civil restraining orders are a waste of time or a poor substitute for criminal prosecution?
In assessing the effectiveness of restraining orders, it is necessary to look beyond headlines at a broader sampling of cases. Researchers recently talked to many battered women, inquiring into subjective feelings of well-being and safety after the victims obtained court orders. They also looked into how often abusers violated restraining orders.
The study by the National Center for State Courts relied on interviews with 285 battered women from Denver, Wilmington, Del., and Washington, D.C., and with court and law enforcement personnel, and on examination of court records.
The study suggests that high-profile murders obscure many everyday successes. The study found that 75 percent of domestic violence petitioners had increased feelings of well-being after an order was issued. The percentage rose to 85 in follow-up interviews six months later.
Although many of those surveyed felt safer because they had left an abusive situation, advocates warn that the period after a victim obtains an order can become more dangerous. Safety planning is necessary.
While the potential for danger should not be underestimated, the study suggests that restraining orders are by and large an effective deterrent. After six months, 65 percent of the survivors interviewed reported that the abuser did not violate the court order, and only 8.4 percent reported physical abuse during that time.
In Denver, where the police were more likely to arrest abusers, the rate of new physical abuse after six months declined to 2 percent. women with children reported more violations than women with no children. violent abusive men with criminal histories were more likely to violate restraining orders.
The partners of violently abusive men reported more positive feelings of well-being after obtaining restraining orders, even though these men were more likely to violate the orders. The study suggested that the process of obtaining restraining orders bolstered many victims’ feelings of self-esteem and security.
Evidence also pointed to the effectiveness of a temporary restraining order even when a final order was not obtained. More than a third of the women surveyed stated that they did not seek a final order because the batterer stopped bothering them. An additional 10 percent reported that the batterer left the area after the temporary order was filed. The court process, even a temporary order, apparently deterred a significant number of abusers.
Other reasons final orders were not obtained will be all too familiar to those who work with victims in domestic abuse cases: 2 percent of those who obtained temporary restraining orders did not seek a final order because of abusers’ threats and another 2 percent were persuaded by the abuser to drop the case.
Interviews with those who sought protective orders revealed that their abusers generally shifted from physical to psychological abuse in the six-month period after an order was issued. Most commonly, victims received phone calls at home (16.1 percent) and at work (17.4 percent). Nine percent of abusers violated orders by showing up at the survivor’s home, and 7.2 percent reported being stalked by an abuser after six months.
The study notes that restraining orders do not operate in a vacuum; the quality of support services for domestic violence survivors makes a critical difference.
The report’s authors recommend that courts inform women of all the services available in the community to help them. Most women received help, if they received any at all, in the month before obtaining the order. Typically they were supported or sheltered by friends and relatives.
Rather than exercises in futility, this study supports the conclusion that restraining orders make a significant, positive difference for a great majority of victims. The effectiveness of restraining orders may well depend, however, on the specificity and comprehensiveness of the relief granted, as well as on how well the victim and law enforcement agencies are prepared to enforce them.
Certainly, there are no guarantees that no harm will come to those who seek protective orders, but, in the vast majority of cases, this study suggests that restraining orders work.