Should People Get Restraining Orders Even Though They Often Don’t Work?

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Oct. 22 2012 3:48 PM

Do Restraining Orders Work?

Sunday’s shooting in Wisconsin typifies the shortcomings of our response to domestic violence.

Police outside the Azana Salon and Spa where three people were killed in a mass shooting on Sunday in Brookfield, Wisconsin.
Police patrol outside the Azana Salon and Spa where three people were killed and four others wounded on Sunday in Brookfield, Wis.

Photo by Jeffrey Phelps/Getty Images.

Radcliffe Franklin Haughton opened fire in the Wisconsin spa where his wife worked on Sunday, killing her and two others before turning the gun on himself. Haughton was under a restraining order that his wife had won earlier in the month after he slashed her tires and threatened to burn her with gas. Do restraining orders work?

Yes, but not immediately. Sunday’s shooting in Wisconsin is an extreme example of one problem with protective orders: They don’t seem to work in the short term. For example, in a study of domestic abuse victims in Washington state, protective orders did not reduce the recurrence of violence until four months after the initial attack. In the first few months, psychological abuse is actually more common among those who obtain legal protection than those who do not. Over the long term, however, protective orders appear to work very well. Permanent protective orders decrease the incidence of domestic abuse by 80 percent over the course of a full year following the initial abuse.

It’s not clear why protective orders have a delayed effect. It’s possible that abusers are so psychologically unsettled in the heat of a domestic dispute that criminal sanctions don’t immediately deter them. Advocates for domestic abuse victims argue that these data show judges must take extra precautions in the face of credible threats, such as GPS monitors that notify the victim when the attacker is near.

This is an active field of research with many disagreements. Dozens of studies employing nearly as many different methodologies address the effectiveness of protective orders. Many researchers simply compare the abuse rates before and after a victim obtains the order. The abuse rate inevitably drops, but that doesn’t mean the order caused the change. The victim might have moved out of the abuser’s home or otherwise cut ties with him during this period. More sophisticated studies compare the rate of reported violence for women who obtained protective orders and those who had their petitions denied. The problem here is that those two groups are fundamentally different: A judge determined that the latter women didn’t show sufficient evidence that they were in danger.

Despite all this uncertainty, most researchers urge victims to seek protective orders because studies consistently show they make women feel safer. In one study, 86 percent of participants believed that the restraining order helped. Most women are satisfied with the order even if the attacker violates it. Although subjective, that result is an important endpoint. Women who believe the protective order is working report better sleep and fewer days of stress.

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Explainer thanks Victoria Holt of the University of Washington’s department of epidemiology.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.