Protective orders really do work

I have handled protective orders in Texas as a prosecutor, and now, as a private attorney, for the last 13 years. In other words, I have helped thousands of women, children, and men find safety and peace after enduring acts of brutality at the hands of a loved one.

As a prosecutor with the Travis County Attorney’s Office, our staff screened many more cases than we accepted. We conducted a thorough intake on every case to make sure the person seeking protection met the statutory guidelines for a protective order.

Contrary to popular belief, we did not accept every woman who walked through our doors. However, I cannot remember a single case where a woman sought a protective order solely to gain an advantage in a subsequent divorce or custody suit.

In fact, notwithstanding the protections built into state law, many judges across the state award joint custody to abusers even when there is a protective order in place. Courts award joint custody to batterers in spite of the fact that the effects of domestic violence have a devastating impact on children, whether they have been direct victims of abuse or just witnesses to abuse. The Texas Family Code recognizes that domestic violence is detrimental to children by creating a rebuttable presumption and other hurdles for abusers to clear before gaining access to their children. The National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) acknowledges that violence in the home can affect mental health, physical health and poor functioning in school for children. Further, children who witness domestic violence in their home are more likely to go on to batter their partners as adults.

Battering rarely ends when the parents are separated; it is widely accepted that the most dangerous time for a woman is when she leaves her abuser. This is the time when women are most likely to be killed, and if they are not killed, battering often escalates or takes the form of using the children as pawns or stalking behavior.

To give you an idea how big the problem is in Texas, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence, 37 percent of the 158 women murdered by a male intimate partner in 2015 had ended or taken steps to end their relationship. The breakdown is as follows: 32 women had already ended their relationships; 27 were ex-girlfriends; 5 were ex-wives; 19 were still married to their abuser but were in the process of leaving or were already separated from their husbands; 7 women were in the process of leaving their boyfriends, 11 were killed during custody exchanges and other post-separation contacts. Of the total women killed, 108 were mothers, leaving 281 children and adults without a mother. At least 101 adults and children witnessed perpetrators attack and kill their intimate partner. Finally, perpetrators killed 19 additional family members and friends, including 10 children of the victims.

As a legal aid attorney, I travel across the state representing victims of family violence, sexual assault and stalking in protective order hearings in jurisdictions where county and district attorney’s offices will not assist. The clients I’ve represented have been punched, kicked, set on fire, stabbed, threatened with guns, thrown to the ground, strangled to unconsciousness, raped, and stalked. The children I have helped have been sexually abused, tortured and beaten and have often had to watch their moms battered and berated. Each of my clients was fearful of their abuser and each one felt a sense of relief when their protective order was granted.

While many people believe protective orders are just a piece of paper, there is, in fact, research demonstrating their efficacy. The Journal of the American Medical Association conducted a study in 2002 that found that having a protective order was associated with an 80 percent reduction in police-reported violence. Another study of protective orders in Kentucky found that half of victims who received protective orders experienced no violations in the 6-month period after the order was granted. In that study, 95 percent of victims who received protective orders felt the order was effective at reducing violence. This same study found that in one year, in Kentucky, protective orders saved the state at least $85 million in costs.

It never ceases to amaze me that someone would question the need for protection for the 7 million women and the 15.5 million children who experience domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking each year.

Suggesting that women cry wolf when it comes to allegations of domestic violence in order to gain an advantage in subsequent litigation is not only misguided but it implies that these women are actually benefitting from reporting their abuse. To somehow shift the focus in the context of domestic violence from the abusive partner to the “manipulative” victims is irresponsible and misleading.

In my 18-year career as an advocate for victims of crime, it is a rare day that I see a woman walk out of family or criminal court with the outcome they wanted and/or needed to protect themselves and their children from further harm. Instead, most of the victims I have worked with are forced to share custody of their children, to co-parent with their abuser and stay up all night wondering if their children are safe.

Rather than questioning whether protective orders work, perhaps it would benefit us all to take a look at how the system holds offenders accountable and how we can work better as a community to prevent family violence and keep victims safe.

Erin Martinson

Managing attorney, Texas Legal Services Center