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

Published June 2009

Chapter 7. Judicial Responses

Section 11 — Do protective orders work?

The research has not been able to answer this question definitively, mainly because it is not ethically permissible to randomly grant or deny protective orders to compare results. Furthermore, these orders may "work" at different levels.

First, in terms of their effectiveness in deterring repeat abuse, before and after studies suggest that protective orders may deter certain abusers. In Travis County, Tex., over a period of two years before and after order issuance, physical abuse dropped from 68 percent to 23 percent after the orders were obtained, if victims maintained the order. If the abusers were also arrested at the time of the order issuance, the physical abuse diminished further; if they had children, it diminished less. [26] These studies cannot reveal whether or not the abuse would have naturally declined overtime without the orders because, for example, the victims are more likely to have left their abusers when they obtained the orders.

Several Seattle studies compared women who obtained orders to women who were abused (as indicated by a police incident report) but did not obtain orders. They found that women with permanent orders were less likely to be physically abused than women without them. However, women who had temporary orders that lasted only two weeks were more likely to be psychologically abused than women who did not obtain any orders. The women who did not obtain orders appeared at higher risk for abuse, involvement with alcohol and drugs, more likely to have been assaulted and injured as a result of the study incident, and less likely to have been married to their abuser. The study did not look at violations of protective orders that did not involve physical assaults. [120] The second Seattle study found that the orders were more effective nine months after they were obtained than during the first five-month period, significantly reducing the likelihood of contact, threats with weapons, injuries and the need for medical care. [121]

Finally, several other studies that compared women who maintained orders and those who dropped them, or did not return for permanent orders, found that order retention made no difference in reabuse rates. [105, 134] A Rhode Island study involving criminal no-contact orders, issued automatically during a domestic violence arrest, also found that whether victims allowed the orders to be continued for the length of the criminal case and probationary sentences that followed (usually one year) or not, the reabuse rates did not vary. [141]

At least one study suggests that the specific stipulations of the protective orders may make a difference. Specifically, victims are more likely to be reabused if their orders bar abusive contact but not all contact. Compared to women whose orders barred all contact, those that barred only abusive contact were significantly more likely to suffer psychological violence, physical violence, sexual coercion and injuries within one year. [150]

Nonetheless, the research consistently finds that victims largely express satisfaction with civil orders, even if they are violated by their abusers. [134] In the multisite study in Massachusetts, 86 percent of the women who obtained a permanent order said that the order either stopped or reduced the abuse, notwithstanding the fact that 59 percent called police to report an order violation. Upon further questioning, the women expressed the feeling that the order demonstrated to the abuser that the "law was on her side." [182] In a multistate study, victims who obtained orders reported that the orders improved their overall well-being, especially if the abuser had a prior criminal history and was more likely to reabuse. [133] It may be that, even though orders do not stop abuse, they reduce the severity of the reabuse. Alternatively, although they may not affect the extent of reabuse, protective orders make victims feel vindicated and empowered.

Although not studied directly, it appears to be significantly easier for law enforcement to monitor and enforce protective and no-contact orders than to monitor and interrupt abuse in general. This may explain why abusers are significantly more likely to be arrested for protective order violations than other common domestic violence offenses. The rearrest rate for abusers in Rhode Island initially arrested for violation of protection or no-contact orders was 45.6 percent over one year, compared to 37.6 percent for domestic assaults, disorderly conduct or vandalism. [141] Of course, it may also be the case that abusers with orders are generally at higher risk for reabusing than abusers without orders.

Implications for Judges

Victims should be encouraged to take out protective orders and retain them but should also be advised that the orders do not deter all abusers and may be more effective when accompanied by criminal prosecution of the abuser. (Research basis: Numerous studies indicating consistent victim satisfaction with orders, complemented by studies that have consistently found that orders do not appear to significantly increase the risk of reabuse and may deter some abusers.)

Date Created: June 5, 2009