“It’s just a piece of paper.”
Many survivors of domestic violence are still under the impression that an order of protection, or restraining order, carries no more weight than the paper it’s printed on. In other words, they’re doubtful of a restraining order’s ability to protect them.
In a 2000 study, the National Institute of Justice found that approximately half of the restraining orders obtained by women against intimate partners who physically assaulted them were violated, which means the other half of the orders did, to some extent, help to keep a batterer at bay.
Still, studies show that survivors will endure multiple years of abuse before obtaining a restraining order, a fact that disheartens Silvia Samsa, who’s been advocating for domestic violence survivors for more than 30 years and counting. As the executive director of Women’s Habitat, a domestic violence shelter and outreach center in Etobicoke, Ontario Canada. “They’re absolutely important. Some people think it’s only a piece of paper, but it’s clearly saying what [the perpetrator] has done is against the law and you cannot assume you have complete access to this person you’ve been abusive to,” Samsa says.
However, she fears the majority of abuse survivors in Canada choose not to get a restraining order for several reasons. “A lot of women are fearful of having the police involved. They’re worried their partner will go to jail, and if he goes to jail then he’s not working.” And, adds Samsa, many women still have no idea a restraining order is even an option.
“Wouldn’t it be lovely if restraining orders were done automatically when police are called? Lots of times, the criteria to get a restraining order is quite high,” says Samsa. In essence, a survivor in Canada needs to prove to the courts that she needs one. Survivors of non-physical types of abuse, like verbal or mental abuse, or stalking, are often met with skepticism, she says.
In the United States, restraining orders have long faced debate—domestic violence advocates say they’re a necessary tool to help protect survivors from continued abuse, while opponents argue they’re too easy to obtain and are often used as a litigation strategy or a form of retaliation.
Yet, with an average of three deaths occurring every day in the U.S. as a result of domestic violence, and a woman being beaten every three seconds by an intimate partner (the majority of victims are women, but one in four U.S. men will also experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes) many believe offering restraining orders without complication is key to saving lives.
“I think the whole issue of abuse is not an easy one to deal with, it’s very complex,” says Samsa. “Instead of asking, ‘Why doesn’t she leave? Why doesn’t she get a restraining order?’ why are we not asking, ‘Why is he abusive?’”
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