Domestic Violence: Do Restraining Orders Work?

A vital tool in the campaign to prevent domestic violence, restraining orders can save lives. But they don’t always work.

Purple Ribbon. Represents domestic violence. Courtesy of Messer Woland.
Purple ribbon, symbolizing the campaign against domestic violence.
Image courtesy of Messer Woland.

by David Arv Bragi

Original Publication Date: September 16, 2015.
Revised November 13, 2021.

Many years ago, I lived around the corner from a young woman and her tween daughter, in a quiet neighborhood of modest single-family homes where young families built new lives and their children played together safely on their well-kept front yards.

I was a newlywed, she had a live-in boyfriend, and like most of the neighbors we would stop to chat amiably whenever we passed each other on the sidewalk.

Her boyfriend was another matter. With a surly attitude and a habit of parking numerous junked cars in front of other people’s houses, nobody much liked him. She didn’t even seem to like him and never had a good word to say about him.

One day, I asked her why she didn’t just move out and find a better living situation. “Oh, I own that house” she told me. “It’s in my name and I pay the mortgage. He doesn’t contribute a dime.”

So, I asked why she didn’t just ask him to move out. She laughed nervously and replied, “no, you don’t say that kind of thing to him. He’ll get mad.”

I thought about it for a moment and — being the type of guy who tends speak without thinking — I blurted out, “then it’s not your house. It’s his house.”

She stared at me for a long moment, thinking but not talking. Then she walked away.

Two weeks passed before I ran into her again. She had bright and cheery smile on her face, and we had a nice conversation, like nothing had happened. When I asked about her boyfriend, she waved offhandedly and said, "Oh, he’s out. I got rid of him.” We never spoke of him again.

My neighbor was an intelligent, brave and very lucky woman. All too often, a possessive ex will threaten you with physical violence, or an obsessed acquaintance will lurk behind your home every night, or your live-in will start treating you like an unwanted piece of furniture.

In these and any other type of abusive relationship, you have the absolute right to protect yourself from domestic violence, both in and out of the home. Sometimes, just asking them to leave doesn't work. Should you go to court and slap a restraining order on them? Will it help?

Yes, they do work

Based on a survey of police reports, women who obtain a permanent restraining order against a male intimate partner are subsequently significantly less likely to experience physical abuse than those who don’t, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

They're “often very effective,” according to Debbie Segal, special advisor and former chair of the American Bar Association's Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence. For instance, the court may require that your abuser cease all contact with you, possess a firearm or even move out of your home.

“Most civil protection orders provide that some violations of the order can be punished by incarceration,” she says. “That proves to be a deterrent for many perpetrators.”

However, they can backfire

Unfortunately, some abusers choose to ignore them, occasionally with deadly consequences. “A civil protective order is just a piece of paper,” cautions Segal. “It cannot stop a perpetrator who ignores it from continuing acts of violence.”

In one survey of murders where a male perpetrator killed a female intimate partner, 11% of the victims had already been granted a restraining order.

The JAMA study noted that women who obtain a temporary restraining order (which is often the first step to qualifying for a permanent one) are actually more likely to subsequently suffer from psychological abuse.

In some cases, receiving one just provokes the harasser to seek the victim out. "What happens is that the lethality of a situation and the perpetrator's behavior can escalate after a protection order has been put in place,” says Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Develop a personal safety plan

So, have a Plan B exit strategy in place, in case your harasser ignores the order. This might include listing the items you'll want to take if you need to leave in a hurry, leaving a spare set of keys and clothes with a friend, or rehearsing the plan with your children.

“A safety plan is extremely individual and takes into account that person’s schedule, resources, workplace, school and habits, to name a few,” says Segal.

Don't delay until it’s too late

Most women who request restraining orders wait until after they have been victimized by severe violence, according to John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

For quick legal action, request a “temporary” restraining order. If you can convince a judge that you are in immediate danger, they will issue the order right away. Plus, you won't have to confront the other party in the courtroom.

That will give you some breathing room to request a "permanent" order, which stays in effect longer — sometimes years. You will have to go to court, at which time the other party will have the opportunity to challenge the order.

Report any violations

If the abuser approaches you after receiving an order, make sure that you are in no immediate danger, then inform the authorities. “Some options are to call the police in an emergency, or return to court and seek an order of contempt or to ask the court to prosecute the violator in criminal court,” says Segal.

Having an order in place also helps the police to respond appropriately when responding to a call. If the police arrive and don't already know about the order, you may need to show them a copy. Keep one with you at all times and leave one with a trusted friend or advocate.

Preserve any evidence that you or your loved one is being abused. Take photographs of injuries and save torn clothing.

Get help from an advocate

You don't have to navigate these complex legal and safety waters alone. "Find your local domestic violence program and ask for guidance on obtaining a protective order,” says Glenn. Useful contacts:

“Protective orders can serve as a valuable tool for documentation of abuse and the need for safety,” says Glenn. “If they are provided and enforced safely they can be one tool in the box.”

An earlier version of this article is Copyright © 2015 by UL, LLC. It was originally published in the SafeBee public safety website, which no longer exists; revised and republished here with permission.