How Much Protection Do Protective Orders Provide?
Leaving a relationship can be extremely dangerous for domestic abuse victims. Domestic violence protective orders are intended to help women during this time—but advocates say the current system can also make them vulnerable to further abuse.
Illustration by Calum Heath.
On a winter morning several years ago, Jillian was attacked by her on-again, off-again boyfriend Roger. (Their names have been changed to protect her privacy.) Despite wearing several layers of clothing—she despised North Carolina winters—the assault left Jillian with large bruises on her back, red marks on her neck, and fingerprints on her arms. As she was leaving, he threatened to put her in the hospital the next time he saw her.
Jillian’s friends encouraged her to go to the police, and Roger was later arrested and charged with a misdemeanor that subjected him to a domestic violence protective order. He not only had to avoid all contact with Jillian, but he also had to surrender his firearms and lost the ability to purchase new guns.
Although they’re considered life-saving tools for victims of abuse, domestic violence protective orders (DVPOs) come with problems of their own. Not only can the process to obtain one be complicated, intimidating, and, for some, dangerous, but they also only last for a finite amount of time.
Jillian found that out the hard way. For one year—that’s how long most final domestic violence protective orders last in North Carolina, though they can be extended for an additional two years—she relied on her order to keep Roger away. When that year was up, a number of people suggested she “let it go.” She tried to, and allowed the restraining order to expire. But within a month, she was surprised and alarmed to see Roger at a public gathering. He began calling and emailing her incessantly, and reached out to her friends and employer.
Realizing that not renewing her protective order had been a mistake, Jillian petitioned for a new one. But the court told her that because he hadn’t physically assaulted her in a year—it had technically been more than 12 months since she was attacked—it refused her request for a hearing. It wasn’t for another six months, after she documented enough messages and threats to show a pattern of stalking and harassment, which led to new charges, that she was finally granted the order of protection. She decided she would never make that mistake again.
More than half of all female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner, according to a 2017 report from the CDC. Numerous studies have found that separation is often a precursor to intimate partner homicide, making it extremely dangerous for a victim of domestic violence to leave a relationship. And, as April Zeoli, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, points out, separation often begins in the context of a restraining order. Most women file for an order of protection after “severe violence,” including physical or sexual abuse.
“Protective orders are an important tool that people who’ve been abused by their intimate partners could make use of to get the justice system involved and to, importantly, get firearm restrictions,” Zeoli says. “Now, whether or not someone gets a restraining order—ultimately, that is a personal decision. They have to weigh what they think the consequences to their safety might be because some women do risk retaliation.”
Jennifer Payne is a civil legal aid attorney in Chicago who’s helped victims navigate the process of receiving a protection order. She calls this legal intervention “an incredibly powerful weapon” because it includes a mandatory arrest provision—whether the respondent is threatening the petitioner or leaving flowers on her doorstep—if the order is violated.
Generally, there are two kinds of civil protective orders, though what they’re called varies in each state: an emergency or temporary restraining order (sometimes called an “ex parte temporary protective order”) and a final or permanent restraining order. (It’s also possible for a victim to be protected under a criminal protective order, though those cases are initiated and controlled by the district attorney.)
A temporary order is usually issued by a judge when he or she agree a petitioner is in immediate danger; in those instances, the abuser does not have to have advanced notice and is not present in court. “That’s an unusual thing to do in the United States of America,” Payne says.
In order to obtain that temporary order, however, a person must first prove they were abused or harassed by their domestic partner, and then also show good cause for not giving him the opportunity to defend himself then. And because the alleged abuser isn’t in court for that initial hearing, those emergency orders don’t last very long; that timeframe is dictated by state law. In Illinois, for example, where Payne practices, an emergency protective order lasts 21 days, or until a full court hearing can be scheduled to allow the accused an opportunity to share his side.
An important caveat to all that, though, is that in some states, such as North Carolina, Arizona, and Indiana, the order can’t be enforced until the alleged abuser is actually served the papers. “What if the sheriff can’t find him? What if [the petitioner] doesn’t really know where he’s currently living because they just separated?” Payne explains. Oftentimes, she continues, a victim has to re-petition the court over and over again until her alleged abuser can be served; this can cause a significant delay in her case.
Additionally, under federal law, gun restrictions don’t apply for temporary protective orders; those federal restrictions only go into effect after a full hearing. Advocates say this discrepancy puts many women at risk. A 2003 study found that the odds of an abused woman being murdered by her abuser increase five-fold if he owns a firearm. Between 2006 and 2014, more than 5,000 women were shot and killed by a current or former intimate partner.
One of those women was Lori Jackson, a 32-year-old mother of two who was shot and killed by her husband in Connecticut after obtaining a temporary restraining order against him. Her mother told local media that Jackson’s husband “took an angel that day.”
Once the alleged abuser does receive the order, the victim then has the opportunity to make her case for a permanent protection order—though in many states those orders are not “permanent” at all, lasting anywhere from one to five years. (Some states, such as Alabama, Florida, and New Jersey, do issue protection orders without expiration dates.) But for that permanent order to be granted, the victim has to convince the court that it’s more likely than not that these abuses occurred. If she doesn’t have an attorney or domestic violence advocate to help her navigate the process, she has to figure out what records qualify as evidence to help her case, which can also be an overwhelming and complicated process. As Jillian says, from her experience, “None of this is done in a way to be helpful to the people who are the actual victims.”
For some victims, says Philadelphia-based civil legal aid attorney Susan Pearlstein, what’s even more intimidating is having to stand up in court and articulate what’s happened to them and why they’re afraid as their alleged abuser stands just mere feet away. “The whole process is pretty difficult,” she says, “and it can be traumatizing, especially if you’re on your own.”
Pearlstein adds that any potential hurdles a victim faces—from having to take time off from work and spending hours filing paperwork to actually testifying in court—are compounded when the petitioner is a member of a marginalized community, doesn’t speak English well, or is low-income. And, she says, a person may not always get a protection order (temporary or permanent) just because they apply for one.
“If your goal is to protect someone from gun violence, then waiting two weeks for a hearing ... doesn’t make sense"
The question is, do protective orders really work? A 2009 study for the US Justice Department found that “research has not been able to answer this question definitively”—statistics on efficacy vary depending on a number of contextual factors—but that “orders may ‘work’ at different levels.” Several other studies confirm that protection orders have been found to stop or reduce violence.
Research has shown, however, that domestic violence protection orders can save lives when they include provisions that address gun access: According to a 2017 study authored by Zeoli, the Michigan State University researcher, states that have firearm restrictions attached to restraining orders experience a roughly 10 percent decrease in intimate partner homicide. In states where emergency or temporary orders include firearm restrictions, homicide is reduced by 12 percent.
Lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully since 2014 to pass the Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act, named after the Connecticut woman who was killed by her husband while she waited to obtain a permanent order of protection. The bill, which currently sits in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would close the gap in federal law that allows abusers under a temporary order of protection to continue to possess or buy firearms for the duration of the order. (According to the Giffords Law Center, only seven states have addressed this omission: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin).
“If your goal is to protect someone from gun violence, then waiting two weeks for a hearing ... doesn’t make sense,” Zeoli says. “It doesn’t make sense to say, ‘Statistically, I know this is the most dangerous time for you, but you have to wait.’”
Jillian now lives in another state, but returns periodically to renew her protective order. To do so, she has to take off from work and fly back to North Carolina to file the paperwork. The law also requires that she show she’s made an effort to contact her abuser to give him notice—for Jillian, that means searching for Roger’s address online and sending paperwork by certified mail.
About 10 days after filing the petition, Jillian has to take off work again and fly back to North Carolina to retell her story and try to convince the court to renew her protection order. “And they always say to me, ‘Is there a reason why—has he contacted you?’ [And I tell them] ‘No, he hasn’t contacted me because I have a restraining order against him.’ [Then they’ll say] ‘Well, he hasn’t contacted you, so why should we have a restraining order against him? [My response is] ‘Because that’s why he hasn’t contacted me. Because he knows if he does, I’m not messing around—I’m calling the police.’”
Pearlstein, the Philadelphia-based attorney, says the systems that respond to interpersonal violence are indeed fraught with problems. “Many clients become so exhausted and traumatized by the numerous court proceedings they must initiate and/or attend that they give up and don’t renew a protection order,” she explains, adding how vital civil legal aid can be for survivors trying to navigate this long and complicated process. “It is terrifying for survivors to have to stand in court and try to prove they need a protection order … [and they] often justifiably feel no one is believing them or taking the abuse seriously.”
“It doesn’t make sense to say, ‘Statistically, I know this is the most dangerous time for you, but you have to wait.’”
But Jillian’s protective order does offer her some peace of mind; if he ever shows up at her home or work, she knows she can have him arrested. But, more importantly, he’s banned from possessing a gun. “I can’t control anything,” she says. “Except as long as I keep that restraining order against him, he’s not allowed to have a firearm. It’s not going to stop him from getting a gun, but it’s going to make it that much more complicated.”
Jillian admits it was hard for her to figure out how the system works, and says that there’s something “deeply sadistic” about putting such a burden on a victim—especially considering many other people may not be able to access the kind of resources she’s been able to access. In her mind, an abuser like Roger “should have to prove why the restraining order should be taken away from him,” she says. “He should be able to prove why he should be allowed to carry a gun again.”
As a victim, she continues, “you’re never going to get closure, you just can’t; it’s not possible.”