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Home / Articles / Protection Orders / Are Restraining Orders Really the Best Option?

Are Restraining Orders Really the Best Option?

Getting an order of protection is usually the first step for survivors ready to leave an abuser, but there are still questions about how well this piece of paper actually protects

survivor filing for protection order

This piece was originally published in 2015. It was updated in 2024.

It's just a piece of paper. 

So say many survivors of domestic violence are granted orders of protection against abusive partners, only to watch those abusers brazenly violate the orders time and time again. 

“I may as well hold up a sign that says, ‘Please stop, if you don’t mind,’” a survivor once told me. 

And yet, we encourage survivors to get an order of protection (also called a restraining order) as soon as they leave an abuser because the law is supposed to protect survivors, isn’t it? We’d like to think so, but unfortunately, survivors themselves say it often takes far more than this order to make abusers stop. 

Two Types of Orders of Protection

An order of protection can be a criminal or civil order. A criminal order of protection is typically issued automatically after a domestic violence arrest, during the perpetrator’s arraignment. The survivor may not even know about it until the district attorney informs them. 

A civil order of protection is one that the survivor has to request and file paperwork for at the courthouse. Most courts issue them free of charge, but some courts, like in Minnesota, can charge several hundred dollars for a restraining order. This can be a deterrent for some survivors. If you’re in the U.S., find out if your state charges and how much by clicking on your state on

A civil protection order is issued by a family court and can protect you from an abusive spouse, dating partner or family member (depending on your state’s regulations) by forbidding that person from contacting you in any way or coming within a certain distance of you. A violation of that order will most likely result in the abuser being arrested and charged with civil or criminal contempt.  

A temporary order of protection can be turned into a permanent order of protection based on a judge’s ruling that the threat is continuing. This order can last for several years up to a lifetime, depending on the judge and jurisdiction. This order can denote all of the above plus more. A judge may make concessions for custody orders and child support, can revoke an abuser’s access to firearms and may order counseling for substance abuse. 

Consequences for Violating a Protection Order Vary

When a perpetrator is found to have violated a protection order, they can face civil or criminal contempt. According to, civil contempt means the judge will likely issue another court order that reinforces the original one and often include a punishment that doesn’t include prison. For example, they may revoke the abuser’s license, create a more restrictive order of protection or threaten that any future violation will escalate the case to a criminal court. 

When a violation is determined by a judge to be criminal contempt, that means the perpetrator will face more serious consequences, including fines and possible jail time. However, that also means the abuser would receive the rights associated with a criminal charge, including the right to a jury trial and a lawyer, which could extend the case out for a lengthy period of time. 

Multiple violations can also increase the possible consequences for an abuser, which is why survivors are always encouraged to report every violation of the order that they experience, from a text message to an abuser showing up at their house or place of employment. 

However, not all violations are treated equally. Law enforcement might use discretion on whether or not to arrest the offender, depending on the egregiousness of the violation. When petitioning for contempt in court, the judge might also use discretion.

“We would like to think that any violation would be treated as seriously as any other violation,” Stacey Sarver, Esq., legal director and senior attorney for the National Network to End Domestic Violence told in 2015. “But theoretically, if he’s texting her to say ‘I love you,’ it might not be taken as seriously in the district attorney’s eyes as texting, ‘You’re a f*cking b*tch, I’m gonna kill you.’”

Even if the abuser isn’t arrested, showing a pattern of violations can help a survivor build a case to petition for a judge to change the terms of a court order. For instance, if a judge orders no contact, but the offender still has access to a shared residence, the survivor may be able to go back to the court after a violation and ask that the residence be deemed a protected place that the offender would no longer have access to.

Survivors Say Protection Orders Rarely Deter Abusers

Unfortunately, statistics show that half of all protection orders are violated by abusers. Additionally, there is often an escalation of violence by an abuser after an order of protection is issued. This may be why only 20 percent of survivors of domestic abuse end up filing for an order of protection.

In a survey on, when survivors were asked, “What happened when you obtained an order of protection?” over half of the respondents said the protection order was violated, they reported it and nothing happened to the abuser. Only 16 percent said the protection order reduced or stopped unwanted contact. 

The problem with orders of protection seems to be how seriously or not local law enforcement take these orders. After all, the order is only a deterrent to an abuser if consequences exist for violating it. Otherwise, for an abuser who is determined to have power and control over their partner, simply being told to stop bothering them won’t work. 

When we asked survivors for their input on protection orders, one woman had this to say:

“No one enforces it. Police won’t even do anything if you show them the paper. They say [the abuser] has to physically hit you again before [police] will enforce it and … they will just deny it unless you have ten witnesses and a whole recording when it happened for them to even arrest. It means nothing.”

Another survivor told us this:

“I've had one but didn't feel it would protect me from him. He would use his friends to spy on me and tell him.”

Involving the Police Isn’t Always a Safe Option for Survivors 

Silvia Samsa has been advocating for domestic violence survivors for more than 30 years as former executive director of Women’s Habitat, a domestic violence shelter and outreach center in Etobicoke, Ontario. In her opinion, protection orders are about taking a stand.

“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.” 

Asking law enforcement for help in stopping abuse is also a deterrent for minority communities who have experienced discrimination. Or when the abuser is a police officer. According to the National Center for Women and Policing, domestic violence is 2 to 4 times more common among police officers than the general public. And the victims of these police officer batterers are even more vulnerable because of the position of power their abusers hold.

In addition, some survivors who call police wind up being arrested if the abuser claims the survivor physically attacked them, even if the abuser did as well. Self-defense can be used against a survivor by a manipulative abuser, and law enforcement can be under the impression that mutual abuse is a real thing (even though advocates have widely spoken out that it’s not). 

If Not Protection Orders, Then What?

Protection orders aren’t the only option for survivors. Working with an advocate is key, as they can help survivors safety plan and connect them with other resources in the community, such as safe housing and legal help. Unfortunately, taking steps to hide from an abuser may be a survivor’s best bet at staying safe if the abuser is not behind bars. Survivors can hide their new location through address confidentiality programs. They can also consider changing their social security number to prevent financial abuse. 

But advocates say that while protection orders aren’t perfect, in many cases, they can send a clear message to abusers that there will be consequences for their actions. 

For more information on protection orders, including how minors can get one, read our FAQ About Protection Orders.

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