Editor’s Note: We begin a new feature focusing on Family Violence articles that will be written by the Indiana Supreme Court Division of State Court Administration’s newest Family Law Staff Attorney, Ruth Reichard.
Ruth has over twenty-seven years of combined litigation, judicial and teaching experience, as well as a passion for domestic violence issues. She served as a Deputy Prosecuting Attorney in Marion County, and then as a Judge in the Marion Municipal Courts. She was instrumental in drafting new Protective Order laws, alongside Jeff Bercovitz, Director, Juvenile & Family Law, Indiana Judicial Center.
Additionally, she has served as a faculty/consultant for the Indiana Law Enforcement Officers and for the Judicial Center Protective Order Committee. She is nationally recognized for her work in these areas.
In 2012, people seeking protection from family violence, stalking, and sexual violence filed 36,313 protection order cases in Indiana courts. Are petitioners really safer after they get those orders? Do respondents obey the orders? How much danger are petitioners really in when they ask for protection orders? The good news is that researchers have studied these questions, so we have some answers.
In a 2009 study conducted in Kentucky (The Kentucky Civil Protective Order Study: A Rural and Urban Multiple Perspective Study of Protective Order Violation Consequences, Responses, and Cost), researchers from the University of Kentucky Department of Behavioral Science set out to answer three questions:
- “Rural versus urban similarities and differences: Do community contextual factors matter?”
- “Civil protective orders: Justice or just a piece of paper?”
- “Costs of protective orders versus partner violence: Is it really worth it?”
The researchers concluded that, to some extent, location matters: victims in rural areas experienced barriers to obtaining and enforcing protection orders. In the non-urban jurisdictions, local politics and networks sometimes got in the way of meaningful police and court action, as did the prevalence of drug-related crimes.
Researchers also found that protection orders were most effective in reducing fear, abuse, and violence for women who lived in urban areas and whose violent partners were not engaging in stalking behaviors. Finally, although it is difficult to quantify the true costs of crime, the study demonstrated that the societal costs involved in making protection orders available to victims are far lower than the economic toll of family violence.
When protection orders worked well, they saved the state money in the form of avoided costs. But when respondents stalked their victims, protection orders were less effective and resulted in more costs to the system.
Researchers who study the effectiveness of protection orders have known for some time that violations of protection orders increase (and the orders’ effectiveness decreases) as the criminal record of the respondent becomes more serious. In other words, protection orders work best when abusers have little or no criminal history.
A 1998 study by the National Center for State Courts (Civil Protection Orders: The Benefits and Limitations for Victims of Domestic Violence) reached this conclusion, and also found that protection orders work to prevent future violence when courts are accessible to victims and when communities have strong links between public and private support services for victims.
Most petitioners in that study reported feeling safer after they obtained protection orders: in fact, 72% felt their lives had improved, and the same percentage reported no continuing problems when they were interviewed about a month after their court appearances. The researchers concluded that in most cases, protection orders did deter repeat incidents of physical and psychological abuse, even though many petitioners had experienced severe abuse prior to obtaining their orders, and even though many abusers had criminal records.
The study also found that temporary, or ex parte, protection orders were helpful even if petitioners did not return to court to obtain a permanent order: in fact, 35% of petitioners told researchers that they did not return because the respondent had stopped bothering them after the temporary order. Finally, that study revealed that only 10% of petitioners filed contempt motions when respondents violated protection orders, which suggested that victims lacked both the necessary knowledge and resources for enforcing the orders.
The sheer volume of protection order cases coming into our courts can sometimes obscure the level of serious violence many petitioners have experienced. Public health experts Jacqueline Campbell, Judith McFarlane, and Kathy Watson conducted a study in 2001 in ten cities and published their findings in the Criminal Justice Review (“The Use of the Justice System Prior to Intimate Partner Femicide.”) They looked at women’s use of the justice system during the twelve months before they were killed by their intimate partners, and found that nearly one-fourth, or 23%, of them had obtained a protection order during that period. Nearly half of the women—47%—had used the justice system to obtain a protection order, to report stalking to the police, or to have the perpetrator arrested for domestic violence in the year before their abusers killed them.
The important point for court professionals to keep in mind is that women who are using the justice system, including those who are getting protection orders, are experiencing stalking, serious threats, and actual injury at a significantly higher level than those who are not walking through the courthouse doors. Women who have just ended a relationship with their intimate partners are also at a greater risk of being killed; in fact, this phenomenon is so common that it has a name, “separation violence.”
Obviously, many petitioners seeking protection orders have reached exactly this point in their lives. While leaving a violent relationship in order to be safe from abuse makes sense, it is also a dangerous move—one that can escalate the violence. Studies have shown that divorced or separated women experience more than four times the incidence of violence from their intimate partners than married women. Interviews with men who have killed their wives have shown that the women’s threats of separation, or actual separation, most often precipitated the murders.
What are the takeaways for court professionals from this research?
First, treat every protection order case as if it has the potential for involving lethal violence—because these types of cases can easily become deadly.
Second, make courts as accessible as possible, especially in rural areas where victims may have to travel some distance to the courthouse to file cases. Consider allowing victim advocates office space at the protection order intake area, so they can work on safety planning and offer information and referral to petitioners and their children.
Third, make sure petitioners know what to do if respondents violate orders. And finally, know that you are making a difference in peoples’ lives.