In December, 2017, Madonna McGuire was killed in her Florida home by her estranged husband, who then killed himself.
Shaekeya Gay was shot to death in August 2017 outside her job in North Carolina by her estranged boyfriend of two years, with whom she’d lived. He’s now facing charges for her murder.
In June 2016, Stephanie Goodloe was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend in the bedroom of her home in Washington, DC. He was arrested and charged with murder.
Cassie Wagner was murdered in Oregon in September 2014 by her ex-boyfriend of 11 years.
Aside from being examples of incidents of domestic violence that ended tragically, the above situations have another fact in common: In each case, the victim had a protective order against the man who ultimately ended her life.
So, if you were an abused woman and read these kinds of stories, would you even bother getting such an order against your abuser?
It’s easy to see why the victims of domestic violence may see getting protective orders as a waste of time. But although there are limits to the protections such orders offer, they’re still valuable tools that can help keep victims safe.
Protective orders—also called orders of protection or restraining orders, depending on the jurisdiction—are intended to restrain the person to which they’re issued from harassing, attacking, stalking, threatening, contacting or coming near the target of the abuse as well as her home, workplace, school, etc. These orders can also extend such protections to children and even pets in some cases and states.
Although domestic violence cases stereotypically involve spouses, most states permit the issuance of protective orders in cases involving various types of close relationships.
For example, according to WomensLaw.org, in California, you can file for a domestic violence restraining order if you or your minor child have been the victims of domestic violence from:
- A spouse or former spouse;
- A person you’re dating or used to date, including a same-sex partner;
- The mother or father of your child;
- A person related to you by blood, marriage or adoption (such as a mother, father, child, brother, sister, grandparent or in-law); and
- A person who regularly lives or used to live in your home.
There are both criminal and civil protective orders. To get an order against an abuser, you may need to have a pending case involving that individual in either criminal or civil court, such as an open assault case or child custody dispute. In other words, a judge often can’t just issue you a protective order in a vacuum—the order may need to be connected to an existing court case. (Emergency restraining orders are an exception to that general rule.)
Temporary protective orders typically last for the period of time between court dates on the related case and may need to be renewed at each subsequent court appearance. In some instances, an emergency order may only be in effect until a full hearing can be held on the need for such an order.
When the underlying case is resolved with, say, a guilty plea or a settlement, the court may issue the victim a final or permanent protective order. However, even so-called “permanent” orders aren’t usually permanent.
For instance, in New York, a final order of protection will often be granted for up to two years. But if the judge determines that one or more “aggravating circumstances” exist, such as the abuser’s use of a weapon, the order may be issued for up to five years. Note that some states, such as Florida, do permit the issuance of final protective orders without an expiration date.
Protective orders aren’t a cure-all. First, the orders typically bar the abuser from doing things that are already illegal, such as assaulting or harassing the victim, so they’re redundant in that respect.
Second, protective orders are only effective if the abuser feels compelled to comply with them. When such orders are issued in relation to a criminal case, the abuser has already shown a willingness to violate the law. Thus, it may be unreasonable to expect him to feel bound to comply with the terms of a piece of paper.
Third, the fact that the penalties for violations of protective orders aren’t that harsh—and are usually much less severe than the penalties for any abusive behavior—weakens their effectiveness as a deterrent of such behavior.
For example, at least two other women had filed for protective orders against Cassie Wagner’s ex-boyfriend, claiming similar threats or abuse at his hands. But when he violated Wagner’s order, he merely got probation. And 40 days after she became the third woman issued a protective order against him, she was dead.
Lastly, getting a protective order can sometimes make a bad situation worse by actually triggering a violent reaction by the abuser, especially if he’s surprised by the request.
(Note that research shows that if an abuser has a firearm, the likelihood of a fatality increases dramatically. Under the federal Violence Against Women Act, individuals who are the subject of a qualifying domestic violence protective order are barred from possessing firearms. However, enforcement of that ban has proved challenging—and is a topic that’s too complex for the scope of this article.)
Despite the above issues, victims of domestic violence should at least consider getting a protective order, says Susan Keilitz, JD, Principal Court Research Consultant at the National Center for State Courts and an expert on civil protection orders.
Several studies have found that despite the aforementioned issues, protective orders are effective.
For example, a 2004 study of 150 urban, abused women who applied for a two-year protection order against an intimate partner found significant reductions in threats of assault, physical assault, stalking and workplace harassment during the subsequent 18 months—even if the woman wasn’t ultimately granted the protection order.
The researchers concluded that the protection order was essentially an announcement that the abused woman refused to “take it” anymore and was acting on her own behalf. So, once a woman applied and qualified for a protection order, “a rapid and significant decline in violence scores occurred and was sustained for 18 months.”
Keilitz agrees that getting a civil or criminal protective order can be empowering for the victim, increasing their agency. “A protection order is a really important way that a survivor can try to take matters into his or her own hands and direct the kind of relief that they would like to have,” she explains. Thus, such orders shouldn’t be forced on a survivor—they should be voluntary, she believes.
In addition, getting such an order is a way to get the abuser’s attention and make him realize the seriousness of his behavior, adds Keilitz. And protective orders may give victims access to other kinds of relief, such as economic relief or compensation for property damage.
One of the benefits of having a protective order is that a violation of such an order is a crime in and of itself, separate from any other related charges. These violations may be easier to prove than the criminal charges that led to the issuance of the order in the first place—and may not even require the victim’s testimony.
For instance, suppose an abuser violated a protective order by going to the victim’s workplace, which was prohibited by the order. The prosecution may be able to prove that violation with, say, video surveillance of the workplace’s parking lot or the testimony of a security guard, who saw the abuser.
Thus, it’s critical that the police take these orders seriously and act appropriately when abusers violate them. In fact, in some states, the police are required to arrest the violators of protective orders.
For instance, in New York, the police must arrest an individual if the victim and that individual are members of the same family/household or are intimate partners, and an Order of Protection was violated.
But too often, the police fail to act when protective orders are violated.
For example, after Stephanie Goodloe got an emergency protective order against her ex-boyfriend, she notified the police that he was violating the order by calling her from multiple phone numbers and showing up at her home. She later called the police again to report more violations, saying he had called her at work and told her she should leave DC because he would send people to hurt her. The next day, Goodloe was killed.
Some government officials are trying to improve efforts to enforce protective orders and adequately protect those who hold them.
One tool some states and jurisdictions have embraced is the use of GPS monitoring of the targets of protective orders.
For instance, the Memphis Police Department has launched a three-year pilot program in which GPS ankle bracelets are being used to track the offenders in domestic violence cases. The devices are monitored 24 hours a day by a private company, which notifies the police when the offender enters an “exclusion zone.” So far, the program has resulted in 160 arrests.
However, GPS monitoring is not a perfect solution, either.
For example, when Madonna McGuire’s husband killed her, he was wearing a court-ordered ankle monitor and was in a prohibited area. But the company monitoring his whereabouts never notified the court that he was in an exclusionary zone and thus in violation of the protective order. (The court recently terminated its contract with that company.)
Keilitz notes that GPS monitoring can be effective but it’s expensive. She believes it should be reserved for the riskiest, most dangerous cases because it can be overkill.
There are things that the victims of domestic violence can do themselves, however, to increase the effectiveness of protective orders and ensure their own safety.
“I think you need to let as many people know that you have a protection order. including your employer, your child’s school and anywhere that you go regularly,” says Keilitz.
Give them a copy of the order and carry a copy on you at all times. People such as your friends, employer, neighbors, doormen, etc. can keep an eye out for your abuser and not let him in or notify the police if he shows up somewhere he’s not supposed to be.
After all, the victims of domestic violence are not always attacked at home. Remember that Shaekeya Gay was killed outside her job while on a break.
In addition, it’s important to keep a record of any and all violations of the order, no matter how small or innocuous, and to report certain violations to the court or the police, advises Keilitz. For example, while you might simply document the abuser’s failure to make a payment required by the order, you should notify the police if he shows up at your home or another location barred by the order.
Also, Keilitz warns that victims should avoid engaging with or encouraging their abuser, such as responding to his calls or texts. She explains that you don’t want to give him a window to say, “Well, she called me, so I thought she wanted to get back together.”
If you genuinely want to reconcile with your abuser, apply to alter the order’s terms or to remove the order completely, advises Keilitz.
Keilitz also suggests that victims stay in touch with domestic violence advocates or victim witness services, who can provide various kinds of assistance.
But perhaps the most important thing you can do is to recognize that the protective order should be just one element in your safety plan—don’t rely on it alone. “There is no halo of protection around a person just because they have a protection order,” observes Keilitz.
According to a 2010 review of studies on restraining orders, which was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, “protection orders are not a panacea…they are only one [emphasis added] component of any effective threat-management strategy.”
Keilitz says the best thing for a survivor is to have a safety plan, and to have thought out what they will do in certain circumstances and what their various options are down the line.
Victims should work with law enforcement officials, agencies and/or domestic violence advocates to develop a comprehensive plan, which may include counseling, job assistance, housing, and additional safety steps such as changing your phone numbers and email address.
Bottom line: Despite the issues and limitations, if you’re a victim of domestic violence and qualify for a protective order, you should seriously consider getting one with the advice of domestic violence experts and advocates.
But recognize that such orders are just one arrow in the quiver of protections for these vulnerable individuals and shouldn’t be relied on as the sole defense.
Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.