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Home Articles Legal A Guide to Restraining Orders

A Guide to Restraining Orders

A comprehensive guide for survivors of domestic violence on getting an order of protection

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victim of domestic violence files for an order of protection

Many survivors of domestic violence choose to get a restraining order, or order of protection, against the person who is or was abusing them. While some may think it’s “just a piece of paper,” this legal document can actually be the key to sending an abuser a clear message to stay away, helping a survivor and their children get to safety, and resulting in criminal charges if not obeyed.

What Does a Restraining Order Do?

Whether it’s a restraining order or order of protection—the terminology can vary depending on what the court system in your area chooses to call it—this civil order can do the following:

  • Restrict an abuser from contacting, intimidating, threatening or otherwise interfering with a survivor, as well as any other person named by the court, such as family members. The abuser may be required to stay away from the survivor’s home, business, school, place of employment or any other location named by the court.
  • If a ”no contact” provision is included in the order, it means an abuser cannot contact or subsequently harass the survivor in any way, including through email, text or social media. 
  • A restraining order can also mandate that a victim retain custody of shared children.
  • It can even protect pets. 
  • The order can demand an abuser move out of the residence you share (known sometimes as a “kick-out order.”) 
  • Require an abuser to surrender firearms or prevent the purchase of firearms.

The order can remain in effect for several days up to several years, or until a judge lifts it. It all depends on how long it is determined a victim needs protection. 

Are Restraining Orders Effective?

Of course, there are cases where abusers don’t take an order of protection seriously, but according to studies, an order of protection reduces the risk of violence overall. 

In a study published in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law involving 2,691 women who reported an incident of intimate partner violence to police, researchers found that having a permanent order of protection in effect resulted in an 80 percent reduction in police-reported violence in the next year. 

Similarly, in a study of 448 women who had police-reported intimate partner violence, researchers found that the odds of violation after the protection order was granted were less for contact, threat, sustained psychological abuse and physical abuse by the abuser when compared with women who had reported intimate partner violence but had not obtained protection orders. This all depends on whether or not local police will enforce protection order violations, warn advocates, which tends to vary by community. 

How Do I Get a Restraining Order?

While the exact process may vary depending on your jurisdiction, the first step is typically to get a temporary order of protection, sometimes also called an emergency order of protection (EPO). Most times, an EPO can be filed for on the scene of a domestic violence crime, by police or a victim advocate, and given to the survivor on the spot.

An EPO usually lasts anywhere from a few days to a week. After that, if the survivor decides on additional protection, they can apply for a permanent restraining order that can last six months up to several years and can be renewable. If there are shared children, the restraining order can outline provisions for custody arrangements, such as a safe drop-off and pick-up (after custody details are determined in family court). 

By looking up your local court house online or giving them a call, you can find their steps and hours of operation in order to file an order of protection. You can also call your local domestic violence shelter and ask an advocate to assist you in the process. 

Do I Need a Lawyer?

A temporary order of protection can most likely be granted without the survivor having to go to court, but in order to get a permanent order of protection, a hearing may be called. A hearing will also be called if the abuser challenges the order (asking the judge to cancel it) or if the abuser violates the order of protection. In these cases, a survivor may have to see their abusive partner in court, which can feel intimidating. 

Ideally, a survivor would have representation in court. Since each jurisdiction has different rules as to what constitutes abuse, harassment and stalking, it can be helpful to have an attorney with experience in domestic violence representing the survivor and helping to prove their case. 

However, that’s not always possible. Attorneys can be expensive, and many survivors leave an abuser without adequate financial resources, usually because of financial abuse that the abuser inflicted. At the same time, an abuser may secure legal representation, giving them an advantage in court. 

Try not to panic, survivors. There are ways to prepare to represent yourself in court that can give you a better chance at making your case for abuse. Keep in mind that court proceedings in the last year have largely gone virtual because of the pandemic, so always check with your local jurisdiction around the specifics of a virtual hearing. 

  1. Ask for Advice. Your state coalition should have advocates or experts on hand to answer questions about the restraining order process in your state. It doesn’t hurt to give them a call and ask what you should know before heading to court. You may also want to reach out to your local domestic violence shelter and ask if an advocate there could accompany you to court. They may have more in-depth knowledge of what a judge is going to ask or what else you need to prepare. Womenslaw.org and Legal Momentum are other great resources for free information on your legal rights.
  2. Prepare Your Paperwork. You can find court documents you’ll need for your state on Womenslaw.org. Fill out these forms as much as you can beforehand. 
  3. Assemble evidence and witnesses. Is there anyone you can ask to be a witness for you who saw the abuse or its aftermath? This might include someone from your family, including your children, or a police officer, emergency room physician or a coworker. Do you have any evidence of the abuse? This could include police reports or hospital records; pictures of injuries sustained or objects broken in the home; a log of abusive incidents; threatening voicemails, texts, emails or social media messages; or 911 recordings (which you can subpoena – your local court will have a document to do that). 

Finally, make sure to keep an eye on the court docket, which most jurisdictions will have online. This will contain your case number, important dates, motions filed and other records of your proceeding. You will want to check in on your case periodically to stay on top of the information posted in the docket, and to avoid being surprised by a development. It’s your job to monitor your proceeding.

It’s also a good idea to arrive early, hopefully before your abusive partner arrives, to avoid an encounter with them. If you’re feeling threatened, you can ask the judge to have security escort you to your car, or request that you be allowed to leave 15 minutes before the abuser so that you have an opportunity to depart safely. If the judge needs to leave the courtroom, you can also request that you and the abuser wait in separate areas to avoid intimidation tactics.

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For a more in-depth explanation of how a court hearing may go, see this page on Womenslaw.org

Frequently Asked Questions About Orders of Protection

Here are the answers to some often-asked questions surrounding orders of protection. Keep in mind that laws do vary by state. 

Q: Does it cost anything to file for an order of protection?
A: No, it’s free to file for an order of protection.

Q: How do I get the order of protection served on an abuser?
A: If the abuser is not already in custody, you can contact local law enforcement to serve the abuser. Read more about the process in this article

Q: What if the abusive partner violates the order of protection
A:  If your abuser is a repeat offender, or it was a serious violation, felony charges will most likely be filed. Otherwise, the offender will be arrested and charged with a new domestic violence charge (a misdemeanor) or contempt of court.

Q: If I move to protect myself, will my order of protection still be valid? 
A: Yes! Federal law and the Full Faith & Credit Clause of the Constitution requires that a protection order can be upheld where it’s issued, as well as in all other U.S. states.

Q: Can I get an order of protection if I’m an undocumented immigrant?
A: Yes! Everyone in the U.S., regardless of immigration or citizenship status, has the right to obtain a protection order. Learn more about your rights in this article, “Safety for Undocumented Victims of Abuse.”

Q: Can I get an order of protection if I’m under 18?
A: Yes! You will typically need a parent or guardian to file with you, but if that’s not possible, there are provisions in many states that will allow for a trusted adult over 18, such as an advocate, counselor or family friend, to file on your behalf. You can learn more in this article.   

We've prepared a toolkit "A Guide to Restraining Orders" to help you understand even more what restraining orders are and so you can better assess and understand your situation.