Will a restraining order protect a person from abuse?

The majority of domestic violence advocates proffer that court issued protection/restraining orders will protect the plaintiff on that order from the abuser. In fact many print that promise of protection right on the order. However, for those who work in the criminal justice system and many domestic violence advocates understand that a restraining order, in and of itself, is a piece of paper that can, in and of itself, provide little to no protection.

There is not a single empirical scientific methodological study that has provided data that has demonstrated that the use of a civil protection/restraining order, in and of itself, can protect a victim or deter repeat domestic violence abuse by an abuser. Further, there is no national systematic intervention or response by prosecutors and courts nationwide. Regardless of these facts, thousands of civil protection/restraining orders are being issued each day by the courts and they are available in all 50 states.

An article concerning the safety provided by the issuance of court protection/restraining orders appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association in the Aug. 7, 2002 issue, “Civil Protection Orders and Risk of Subsequent Police-Reported Violence.” The article concludes that the majority of permanent protection/restraining orders are associated with a statistically significant reduction in future police reported physical violence (Holt, et al, 2002).

In this study we found that having a permanent protection order in effect was associated with a statistically significant 80% reduction in police reported physical violence in the 12 months after an IPV [Intimate Partner Violence] incident.

Many in the electronic and print media used the Seattle study to document that protection/restraining orders do work. Many domestic violence advocates now believe they have proof that restraining orders do work. Indeed that is exactly what occurred at a domestic violence roundtable I attended. However, the danger in this study’s conclusion and the pronouncement by advocates is that the conclusion is derived from only one research study in one city.

Seattle, Washington is a city that provides one of the most complete and intensive community wide coordinated domestic violence intervention programs in the nation. It has been the recipient of a lot of money from Federal Grants. However, this single, stand alone does not demonstrate the effectiveness of restraining orders in any other city.

This study offers no proof and there is little reason to believe that those who live in communities without a coordinated community response have the same resources and will receive the same results.

Just because the rooster crows and then the sun rises each morning we should not believe that there is a causal correlation between the crows of the rooster and subsequent rising of the sun. One action that is necessarily followed by another action is a factual observation; however, it is also a fact that one action does not inevitably cause the other.

The data in the Seattle study does appear to document that protection/restraining orders in Seattle were effective in reducing repeat physical assaults for plaintiffs. However, is there not a danger in concluding this to be a fact and then publicly proclaiming that it is the orders themselves that make the plaintiff 80% safer? What leads anyone to believe that the same protection will be provided by orders issued elsewhere?

One of the most important elements of research is that the researcher must understand the cause and effect of both the independent and dependent variable(s). The variable being influenced is called the dependent variable. In the Seattle study it is apparent that the safety of the victim is the dependent variable. The variable actually causing the dependent variable to be influenced is called an independent variable. In the Seattle study it is apparent, as nothing else is offered, that the researchers believe that the independent variable is the protection/restraining order (Barlow & Kauzlarich, 2002).

One of the most comprehensive studies sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, concerning the Violence Against Women Act and how to provide protection for domestic violence victims, Controlling Violence Against Women: A Research Perspective on the 1994 VAWA’s Criminal Justice Impact documents that, “Grants for promising practices implemented in one jurisdiction will do no good for others if the practices cannot be shown to be effective and applicable in other settings.” This warning continues to fall on the deaf ears of policy makers who pass laws in an attempt to provide quick fix solutions for the complex enigma that is domestic violence.

The Controlling Violence Against Women report documents, “Available research evidence suggests protective orders have limited value, in general, as a means of preventing violence against petitioner.” Further it notes, “Practitioners have long urged agents of criminal justice to coordinate their efforts to function as a system of intervention that might ultimately protect women from gendered violence.” Is it not logical to think that it may be the Seattle system of intervention and not the order itself that provides the protection for the plaintiff.

Another National Institute of Justice sponsored study of intimate partner homicides, Exposure Reduction or Backlash? The Effects of Domestic Resources on Intimate Partner Homicide, Final Report, documents that that some contemporary criminal justice interventions may cause more homicides in some communities rather than reduce them. Data indicates that dangers arise when criminal justice interventions are not offered in a coordinated fashion. Controlling Violence Against Women notes, “That some batterers are not deterred by protective orders may be a function of how, if at all, they are enforced.”

While the Seattle study appears to have documented that protection/restraining orders protect victims, it is more likely that the positive results were made possible by a number of important independent variables. These independent variables are available victims in the Seattle area because of the exemplary coordinated community response.

Some of the actual independent variables to be considered are:

  1. is an arrest made;
  2. is the abuser placed in a batterers program or sanctioned by a court;
  3. is family support and resources provided;
  4. is there family, public or private domestic violence support and resources available; and
  5. is there a victim safety plan/program in place?

The protection provided may not a result of the order itself, but rather by the resources and support the victims receive because of the issuance and support provided after the order is in place. It is important for the safety of all victims everywhere seeking protection from an abuser to note that these resources and support are not equally available in all communities.

The Controlling Violence Against Women report notes that, “Policy makers and practitioners should feel confident that research findings, properly contextualized, [emphasis added] can be used in decision-making on preventing violence against women. Above all, both researchers and policy makers need to know that their policies and practices will not endanger women. Unfortunately, there are too few positive preventive result evaluations of policies already in place, and fewer still that approach methodological standards insuring sound data for shaping policy.” Often, policy makers and many practitioners ignore this “One Size Does Not Fit All” warning (Fagan, 1996).

Hence, the answer to the question is both yes and no. Researchers, advocates and the eltronic and print media should more clearly understand the implications, ramifications and possible dangers presented by studies before the results are released to a national audience. The maxim often used is that if one life is saved the policy and procedures have worked. However, when one accepts this maxim to be true, it is equally important they understand that if one life is lost the policy, at the very least, must be reconsidered.

There seems to be little doubt that the Seattle study was systematic, scientific, empirical and extensive and did provide positive results. The study does document that there is now evidence that protection/restraining orders, with a coordinated community wide response and support, can and do provide protection for victims. That would be a more fitting conclusion to the study and that is the real message that should have been trumpeted nationwide.

Barlow, H.D. & Kauzlarich, D. (2002) Introduction to Criminology. NJ: Prentice Hall

Fagan, J. (1996). The Criminalization of Domestic Violence: Promises and Limits. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice

Holt, V.L., Kernie, M.A., Lumley, T., Wolf, M.E., Rivara, F.P. (2002) “Civil Protection Orders And Risk of Subsequesnt Police-Reported Violence.” Journal of the America Medical Association, Vol. 288 No. 5, 589-594.

Wallace, H. (1999). Family Violence: Legal, Medical, and Social Perspectives. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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