Do Domestic Violence Restraining Orders Ever Really Work?

Renewing the violence against women act

Posted Jul 27, 2012

When it was passed by Congress in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) offered hope for women who were current and future victims of sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking, in the form of federal programs, grant monies to advocacy groups, and law enforcement support. The House version passed this May and the Senate is now in discussions on their version of the renewal of the bill.

Sexual, physical, and emotional assaults and the terrorizing of women is something every lawmaker says he or she is firmly against. Like being tough on crime, strong on defense, and supportive of most roads and bridge repair programs, every legislator likes to say the right things. Getting things done, in terms of speeding the glacial movement of this important bill through committee, is another matter completely. For dv advocates, law enforcement, and those dedicated to the safety and security rights for all women in this country, the short answer is: stay tuned.

When it was signed by President Clinton, the VAWA legislation helped close a significant loophole for police, who had problems enforcing civil stay-away and restraining orders across state lines. If the bad guy in a woman’s life was served with an order of protection in Texas, and she moved to Iowa to get away from him, the city or county cops in the Iowa town where he showed up could not always arrest him unless he broke one of their state laws. (The sad and proven reality of domestic violence or stalking is that most victims are female and most suspects are male. There are always exceptions, of course, including same-sex domestic violence, but rarely are women the perpetrators of violence or stalking, so the arrest stats support the male pronoun as the offender.) 

Under VAWA, the concept of Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) enforcement was given state to state reciprocity, meaning a valid order filed and served in Ohio was enforceable in Maine, and everywhere else nationally. Once the local cops arrived on scene and verified that the order was in force, they could lock up the suspect for crossing state lines to harass, intimidate, threaten, stalk, or hurt the victim.

But just how effective are restraining orders in these highly-emotional, always-volatile situations, where a piece of official-looking paper is supposed to serve as a figurative bulletproof shield?  Studies on the efficacy of TROs vary widely, with one suggesting they are effective in keeping victims safe about 85 percent of the time, while another report suggests a less optimistic 15 percent success rate. So let us split the difference and say that restraining orders work about half the time and the other half, they don’t. Why or why not?

Five things make the success of a domestic violence or stalking-related TRO problematic. (And here we can define “success” as the victim is either never contacted by the suspect, or is successfully arrested and prosecuted—both of which are not always guaranteed—without ever getting his chance to harm the victim.) 

Problem One: Restraining orders work really well for good rule followers in general, and for those who fear the consequences of violating the order in particular. Sadly, most dv suspects have already proven they are not good rule followers and don’t always fear the police, arrest, jail, prison, or even death by their own hands or via the police. Someone who says, “If I can’t have you, no one else will,” and means it, is not often deterred by papers, even when they are handed to them through the screen of a patrol car or betwixt the bars at jail. (One of the most obvious signs that the guy is not going to follow the limitations of this restraining order is when we discover he didn’t abide by the TRO in his previous relationship.)

Problem Two: The victim does not consistently report the TRO violations, thereby sending the cops and the bad guy mixed messages. DV advocates and the police tell victims to report every single TRO violation, including boundary-probing phone calls, texts, e-mails, home or office drivebys, and face-to-face encounters with the suspect. Some victims are dutiful about this; some are not. If the victim is not vigilant, the police may not be either, especially when they find out the suspect conned, cajoled, or coerced the victim into meeting for coffee and she went. Every violation should demand a police response, a police report, and if possible, a police arrest.  

Problem Three: The police don’t always enforce the order consistently, especially with victims who linger in Problem Two territory. Writing TRO violation reports for a suspect who is long gone on their arrival is not much of a priority for most patrol cops. While they may understand the dynamics of dv and stalking and the need for restraining orders, they are not afraid of the same things the victim is afraid of. They’re used to being around threats and violence, so unless the bad guy is on scene, they are not always going to respond with lights and siren for a misdemeanor, not committed in their presence. (When I teach patrol theory to officers, I remind them that the bad guy may either be driving in their direction as they approach or hiding nearby and waiting for them to take a report and leave. With eyes wide open, they can often catch him nearby. In some cities, including mine, the police can usually arrest a TRO violator for up to 48 hours after they take the report, one of the rare exceptions to the “stale misdemeanor” rule.) 

Problem Four: Sometimes the presence of a TRO makes what was a dormant situation instantly worse. As Hollywood security expert Gavin de Becker says in his bestseller, The Gift of Fear, “Sometimes when we engage we enrage.” This means that if the subject has not bothered the victim prior to this point, getting him served in court with a civil stay-away order may suddenly give him a reason to become a never-ending irritant to the victim. “You’re giving me a restraining order? I’ll give you a reason to give me a restraining order!” and then the games begin.   

Problem Five: Are the police, the dv advocates, and the victim using a TRO as the primary placating tool/security blanket, when a better plan exists? Sometimes it makes good safety sense for the victim to move away. When I was a dv investigator, we often told victims to get a TRO, as part of our usual attempts at due diligence and giving them all of their options. In retrospect, it often made the situation worse and created a false sense of security that once the order was served, the police were now somehow waiting right around the corner to help. 

Some dv victims participate in their own murders by not reading the warning signs, not trusting their intuition, and over-relying on the ever-flawed criminal justice system for help. The life they have to protect is their own. The new and updated VAWA law will help us all in the battle to keep women safe from predators, which is still far from won.  

Dr. Steve Albrecht is a San Diego-based speaker and author on high-risk HR and security issues.  In 1994, he co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first books on workplace violence. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years, in patrol and dv investigations. He can be reached at

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