Protective Orders and Domestic Violence:
Risk Factors for Re-Abuse

Reviewed by
Priscilla Schulz, LCSW

from an article of the same title by:

Matthew J. Carlson, Susan D. Harris, and George W. Holden

Journal of Family Violence,
V. 14 (2), 205-226, 1999

What is a protective order?
Also called a restraining order, protective orders (PO) are civil, legal interventions in domestic violence to protect victims from further abuse. Protective orders protect victims by prohibiting the abusive partner from committing acts of violence, threatening, harassing, or stalking family members. Violation of a PO results in criminal penalties such as fines, imprisonment or both. Victims seek
temporary or permanent protective orders. Victims obtain the
former without the offender being present; temporary orders last about 30 days or until a court date is set and a permanent order is obtained. Permanent orders require both victim and offender to appear in court, and typically last 12 months. Limitations in traditional legal procedures for criminally prosecuting abusive partners gave rise to the creation and use of protective orders.What is the purpose of this study?

In the nearly 25 years since protective orders have been available as a legal remedy for domestic violence, only five studies have examined their effectiveness in preventing re-abuse. Even though these studies found that in most cases abusive partners refrained from violating protective orders, evidence indicated that factors other than the protective order itself may have influenced perpetrators to stop abusing their partners. Short duration of time between receipt of a PO and inquiries about re-abuse may also have inflated protective orders' apparent effectiveness in some studies. Researchers in the present study address these issues:

They looked at a woman's relative risk of physical re-abuse over a relatively long period of time (two-years) after receiving a protective order.

They examined three categories of variables that may influence protective order effectiveness:
  • socioeconomic status (i.e., age, race, and income)
  • relationship investment of perpetrators (as measured by marital status, how long the couple had been together, and whether or not they had children)
  • characteristics of legal interventions (i.e., history of prior arrests of perpetrators for domestic disturbances, and whether victims sought temporary or permanent protective orders)
How was the study conducted?
The research sample consisted of 210 protective order cases filed in January, August and October of 1990, 1991 and 1992 in Travis County Courthouse, Texas. These cases represented disputes between heterosexual, intimate partners where the woman was the victim. All 210 cases had Travis County sheriff's office or Austin police department records from two years before and two years after filing of the PO. Statistical analyses explored protective order effectiveness from different perspectives to account for the influence of variables.What are the study's main findings?

Filing for a protective order resulted in a significant (66%) decline in abuse in the cases examined by this study. In the 23% of cases where violence continued after the PO, however, there was no change in the rate of violence, suggesting that issuing the PO did not increase abuse.

Researchers found significant differences between protective order cases when the effects of different variables were considered:

Socioeconomic Status
  • Women with the lowest family income (i.e., under $18K per year) had significantly less relief from abuse after a PO than other women (53% decline in re-abuse compared to 71% decline, respectively). However, poor women who sought permanent PO's had better success in reducing partner violence.
  • African Americans were significantly more likely to report abuse before and after obtaining a protective order than White or Hispanic Americans.
    • African American women experienced a significantly smaller decline in violence after the PO (54%) than other racial groups (73% decline for Whites, 74% for Hispanics), and were ten times more likely to report re-abuse than White women of comparable socioeconomic status.
Relationship Investment (children here means biological children of the woman and her abuser)
Couples who had been together at least 5 years experienced significantly less violence (85% decrease) after a PO than those who had not been a couple that long (66% decrease).
The presence of children in a relationship significantly affected relief from abuse.
  • Women with children reported less relief from violence after a PO than those without children (51% decline in violence compared to 73%, respectively).
  • Women with children were 4 times more likely to report re-abuse than were women of childless couples.
Length of relationship significantly influenced abusive partners' behavior in cases where the couple had children.
  • Violence was unlikely to re-emerge after a PO in cases of couples in long-term relationships who also had children.
  • Couples with children from short-term relationships were much more likely to experience violence again after a PO.
Characteristics of Legal Intervention
A history of prior arrests significantly predicted compliance with protective orders by perpetrators, especially for lower socioeconomic status women.
Men of higher socioeconomic status were less likely to violate PO's than lower socioeconomic status men.
Permanent PO's resulted in significantly greater relief from violence for victims (68% decrease) than did temporary PO's (52% decrease). This effect was especially apparent among low socioeconomic status women.

What are the study's implications?

    1. The presence of children in domestic violence relationships has a complicated influence on rates of re-abuse after a protective order. Courts should use great care in handling issues of child custody, child-exchanges, and non-custodial parent visitation. Supervised child exchange centers may be called for to minimize contact between parents in contested, emotionally volatile cases.
    2. Whereas in this study a history of arrest predicted compliance with protective orders, other studies about the effects of arrest suggest otherwise. Caution must be used in considering stepping up arrest policies in domestic violence cases.
Reviewed by Priscilla Schulz, December 1999
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