(WOMENSENEWS)–A central question in the ongoing investigation of New York Gov. David A. Paterson is whether he pressured Sherr-una Booker to stop pursuing a protection order against his aide David W. Johnson.
While that answer is not yet known, safety advocates do know a lot about the ways those seeking protection orders can be stymied.
Only about 20 percent of the 1.5 million people victimized by intimate partner violence every year obtain protection orders, according to a 2000 study cited on the Web site of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Even when victims do obtain these orders, it’s no guarantee they’ll actually receive protection.
"Approximately one-half of the orders obtained by women against intimate partners who physically assaulted them were violated," the coalition says on its site.
Sandra Park, a New York City-based staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, says police often do not take domestic violence calls seriously.
"There’s still this underlying notion that violence perpetrated within the home or within the marriage is somehow acceptable because it’s within the context of the relationship," Park said. "I think that [notion] is certainly rooted in our history of husbands having control over the marriage and the family."
Significant and unrecognized barriers for women in accessing protective orders were identified in a September 2009 study funded by the National Institute of Justice in Washington, D.C. The study interviewed more than 200 women in Kentucky who had obtained protective orders, as well as law enforcement officials and victims’ advocates.
The study focused exclusively on Kentucky, but Rob Valente, general counsel for the National Network to End Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C., said it also revealed hurdles that domestic violence victims face in other states.
"When I read the results of the Kentucky study, it seemed remarkably consistent with my experiences," Valente said. "This really gets it. They’ve really captured what’s going on."
Protection Order Restrictions
Kentucky state law does not allow victims to file for protection orders against an abuser whom they were only dating, according to the report. Instead, they must have been married to their abuser, have lived with the abuser or had a child in common with the abuser.
The American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence’s Web site says Kentucky legislation is "pending to include current or former dating partners."
It is often difficult to serve the abuser with notice of a protection order, without which the order cannot be enforced. Speaking broadly about these challenges, Park, the American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney, cited factors including abusers who dodge service and the cost to victims of getting the notice served.
Courthouse employees and law-enforcement officials may also be uncooperative with petitioners and even try to discourage them from filing for protection orders in the first place, the Kentucky report finds.
In a section of the report focused on victims who have filed and dropped multiple protection orders, the authors find that judges frequently view multiple petitions for a protective order by the same victim as undercutting that person’s credibility. Abusers with connections to judges often try to exploit those connections or even offer bribes.
The report also listed "fear of retaliation, no faith in the justice system, lack of resources or support, embarrassment, fear of being blamed or not believed and fear of child protective services involvement" as factors standing in the way of domestic violence victims seeking and obtaining protection orders.
Valente, at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said many victims find the legal process intimidating and time consuming.
"The follow-up is hard. A lot of people in a very difficult situation will go out and get that protective order and then life overwhelms them," Valente said. "A lot of these folks are really struggling with balancing work, taking care of their kids, taking care of other obligations in their life. And court isn’t very flexible."
Intimated and Reluctant
Park said that most victims applying for protection orders do not have a lawyer with them, which can make going to court all the more intimidating. Those without U.S. citizenship, Park said, may be particularly reluctant to seek protection.
"A lot of immigrants will not want to seek out court assistance," Park said, "because they’re afraid that a court is an unsafe place for them if they’re undocumented."
Another factor frightening victims from seeking protection orders is housing discrimination.
Park said that landlords sometimes use whether someone has had a protection order as a criterion to screen applicants. She added that many towns, especially in the Midwest, are passing ordinances that evict tenants if they call police to their home more than three times in a year; many of these ordinances, Park said, do not take into account whether the calls were deemed to be justified or not.
"It’s being seen as a way to help with town budgets on police services," Park said, "but we certainly think it’s problematic in this context."
Laws governing protection orders vary from state to state. For instance, according to the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence, several states do not grant protection orders for adult "dating violence." Most states do grant such orders, but in some instances there are significant caveats; in Montana, for example, the dating partners must be of the opposite sex.
The length of final protection orders in many states is one year or less. In many states, judges have considerable discretion regarding the length of the order.
"Despite three decades of research on various aspects of protective orders," the Kentucky report noted, "there is still no comprehensive picture of how they are implemented in various jurisdictions across the country or their effectiveness in providing increased safety for partner violence victims."
After receiving a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2006, Tony Richards served for three years as the editor in chief of the Highbridge Horizon, a publication covering a section of the South Bronx. He has written about a broad range of topics, including arts and culture, education, housing and police brutality and has a particular interest in issues of human rights and social justice.
For more information:
State-by-state information on obtaining protective orders, Womenslaw.org
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
The Kentucky Civil Protective Order Study: A Rural and Urban Multiple Perspective Study of Protective Order Violation Consequences, Responses, and Costs