Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges

Published June 2009

Chapter 7. Judicial Responses

Section 9 — When and why do victims ask for orders?

Researchers agree that most victims do not request civil orders after the first abuse incident or assault. According to the NVAW survey, only 16.4 percent of rape victims, 17.1 percent of assault victims, and 36.6 percent of stalking victims petitioned for protective orders following an abuse incident. [209] A survey of victims in battered women's shelters found that only 40 percent had obtained protective orders before fleeing their homes and entering the shelter. [178] Finally, several studies based on samples of women who reported abuse to police found that only 12 to 22 percent had secured protective orders. [120, 220]

Often, victims petition courts for orders after failing to stem the abuse through other means. In a multicourt study involving both an inner city minority jurisdiction and a suburban non-minority city south of Boston, female victims had tried to protect themselves in a variety of other ways before petitioning court for an order. Perhaps most significantly, 68 percent had left their abuser at least once, and 15 percent had kicked their abuser out of the home at least once before petitioning the courts for orders. In addition, 78 percent had called police at least once before, 30 percent had obtained counseling, and 25 percent had called a hotline or had gone to a shelter. [182] In a Colorado study, half of the petitioners had left their abusers at the time of the incident that provoked the protective order petition. [105] Studies have found that between 27 and 50 percent of victims are living with their abuser at the time of the incident that prompted the order request [106, 133, 182], whereas between 37 and 46 percent file for orders after they have left. [74, 75]

As a result, most victims who petition courts for protection orders have suffered several years of abuse with the same abuser before coming to court for the first time. In a multistate (and District of Columbia) study, researchers found that only 10 percent sought protection orders after a week of abuse, 15 percent experienced abuse for one to two years, and nearly 25 percent had endured abuse for more than five years. [133] In a Colorado study, the average female petitioner suffered 12.74 abusive behaviors in the year before requesting their orders (e.g., being threatened to being raped). About 20 percent reported that their prior abuse included the more serious behaviors, including strangling, forced sex and beating. The duration ranged from once to 31 years, with a median of 2.4 years. [105]

The specific incident that prompted victims to petition for protective orders generally involved physical abuse. In the multistate (and District of Columbia) study, more than a third had been threatened or injured with a weapon (36.8 percent), more than half (54.4 percent) had experienced severe physical abuse, 83.9 percent experienced mild physical abuse, and almost all (98.9 percent) had been intimidated through threats, stalking and harassment. [133] In Quincy, Mass., almost two-thirds (64.4 percent) of the victims were physically assaulted, and another third had been threatened with death or harm to them, their children or a relative. [134] Similarly, in a Colorado study, 56 percent of the female petitioners had sustained physical injuries during the incident that led to the protective order requests. [105] In the two courts studied in Massachusetts (one located in a minority neighborhood of Boston, the other a south shore mid-sized city), 92 percent of the petitions filed by female victims described incidents that constituted criminal acts, and 70 percent of them constituted assault and battery. Breaking down the affidavits further, the researcher found that 48 percent described separation violence; 22 percent described punishment, coercion and retaliation concerning children; and 12 percent described retaliation for calling police. A total of 65 percent of the female petitioners told the researcher that the abuser had threatened them with death, 35 percent had visited hospitals as a result of prior violence in the past, 30 percent suffered sexual abuse and, of those who were mothers, 51 percent reported threats to take children from them or report them as unfit to child protective services. [182]

On the other hand, the incident that prompts victims to seek orders may not be the most serious incident they experienced at the hand of their abusers. Research has found that the seriousness of the incident itself is not predictive of a future risk of reabuse. [23, 39, 134, 141, 145, 172]

Implications for Judges

Although petitions focus on the most recent, discrete incident, the incident rarely reveals fully the nature of the abuse suffered by the petitioner or the risk for future abuse. Post-separation abuse frequently involves stalking behavior, a risk factor for further abuse, and even lethality. To obtain more information, judges need to further question victims and review respondents' prior criminal and civil history. (Research basis: Extensive studies of petitioners in disparate jurisdictions as well as many abuser studies.)

Date Created: June 5, 2009