“You never do anything about him. You talk to him and then you leave.” –Nicole Brown Simpson to police
So how does the system usually respond to society’s most predictable murder risk? It tells the woman to go to court, to civil court, and sue her abuser to stay away. In many states this is called a temporary restraining order because it is expected to restrain the aggressor. In some states it’s called a protection order, expected to protect the victim. In fact on its own, it doesn’t achieve either goal.
Lawyers, police, TV newspeople, counselors, psychologists, and even some victims’ advocates recommend restraining orders wholesale. They are a growth industry in this country. We should, perhaps, consider putting them on the New York Stock Exchange, but we should stop telling people that a piece of paper of will automatically protect them, because when applied to certain types of cases, it may do the opposite. It is dangerous to promote a specific treatment without first diagnosing the problem in the individual case.
It is perhaps obvious to say that a restraining order will not restrain a murderer, but there is substantial controversy on the topic. While I warn that they should not be universally recommended because they aren’t right for every kind of case or every stage of a case, most police departments encourage them all the time. Restraining orders (often called TRO’s) have long been homework assignments police give women to prove they’re really committed to getting away from their pursuers. The orders do get the troubled women out of the police station and headed for court, perhaps to have continuing problems, perhaps not, and they do make arrests simpler if the man continues his unwanted pursuit. Thus, TRO’s clearly serve police and prosecutors. But they do not always serve victims. In California, for example, TRO’s are valid for only 14 days, after which the woman must return to court for a trial to determine if the order will be extended.
Even with all the failures of the present system, there are those who aggressively defend it, including one psychiatrist who has been a loyal apologist for the status quo. At a large police conference, he trumpeted: “TRO’s work, and we have proven it.” He based his reckless statement on a woefully biased study of a small sample of stalking cases that didn’t even include spousal stalkers, the very type most likely to kill.
In fact, if you work back from the murders, you’ll find restraining orders and other confrontational interventions alarmingly often. The personal effects of a woman murdered by her estranged husband frequently include the piece of paper that that psychiatrist assured us has been “proven” effective. How does he explain that?
“Look at it this way,” he says. “Some people die on chemotherapy. Some people die when they get restraining orders. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t do chemo – or that you don’t get restraining orders.” The doctor’s comparison between cancer (which the afflicted patient cannot get away from) and the risks posed by an estranged husband (which the woman can get away from) is not only callous, but dangerously flawed.
Since so many women die as a result of this type of careless thinking, and because most of those deaths are preventable, I am going to go a several layers deeper into the topic. I hope you never need this information for yourself, but I know that someone in your life will need it sometime.
Many homicides have occurred at the courthouse where the women were seeking protection orders, or just prior to the hearings. Why? Because the murderers were allergic to rejection. They found it hard enough in private but intolerable in public. For men like this, rejection is a threat to the identity, the persona, to the entire self, and in this sense their crimes could be called murder in defense of the self.
In To Have or To Harm,
the first major book on stalking, author Linden Gross details case after case in which court orders did not prevent homicides. Here are just a few:
was waiting outside the courtroom for the TRO hearing when she was stabbed 19 times by her husband.
Tammy Marie Davis’s husband beat and terrorized her and their twenty-one-month old child, sending them both to the hospital. Right after he was served with the restraining order Tammy obtained, he shot and killed her. She was nineteen years old.
Donna Montgomery’s husband had held a gun to her head and stalked her, so she obtained a restraining order. He came to the bank where she worked and killed her, then himself.
Theresa Bender obtained a restraining order that her husband quickly violated. Even though he was arrested, she remained so committed to her safety that she arranged for two male co-workers to accompany her to and from work. Her husband was equally committed: He shot all three to death before turning the gun on himself.
Maria Navarro called 911 and reported that her estranged husband had just threatened to kill her and was on the way to her house. Despite the fact that he’d been arrested more than once for battery, police declined to dispatch officers to her home because her restraining order had expired. Maria and three others were dead within fifteen minutes, murdered by the man who kept his promise to kill.
husband had violated two restraining orders and had six arrest warrants when he killed her in the presence of their seven-year-old son.
Betsy Murray’s husband violated his TRO thirteen times. He reacted to her divorce petition by telling her, “Marriage is for life and the only way out is death.” When nothing else worked, Betsy went into hiding, and even after police assured her that her husband had fled the country to avoid being arrested again, she still kept her new address a secret. When she stopped by her old apartment one day to collect mail a neighbor had been holding, her estranged husband killed her and then himself. He had been stalking her for more than six months.
The fact that so many of these murderers also commit suicide tells us that refusing to accept rejection is more important to them than life itself. By the time they reach this point, are they really going to be deterred by a court order?
The last case I want to cite is that of Connie Chaney. She had already obtained four protective orders when her husband raped her at gunpoint and attempted to kill her.
The solution recommended by police? Get a restraining order, so she did. Before gunning her down, her husband wrote in his diary: “I couldn’t live with myself knowing she won, or she got me. No! This is war.” Those three words speak it all, because the restraining order is like a strategy of war, and the stakes are life and death, just as in war.
In a study of 179 stalking cases sponsored by the San Diego District Attorney’s Office, about half of the victims who had sought restraining orders felt their cases were worsened by them. In a study done for the U.S. Department of Justice, researchers concluded that restraining orders were “ineffective in stopping physical violence.” They did find that restraining orders were helpful in cases in which there was no history of violent abuse. The report wisely concluded that “given the prevalence of women with children who utilize restraining orders, their general ineffectiveness in curbing subsequent violence may leave a good number of children at risk of either witnessing violence or becoming victims themselves.”
A more recent study done for the U.S. Department of Justice found that more than a third of women had continuing problems after getting restraining orders. That means, favorably, that almost two thirds did not have continuing problems — but read on. While only 2.6 percent of respondents were physically abused right after getting the orders, when they were re-contacted six months later, that percentage had more than tripled. Reports of continued stalking and psychological abuse also increased dramatically after six-months. This indicates that the short-term benefits of restraining orders are greater than the long-term benefits.
I want to make clear that I am not saying TRO’s never work, because in fact, most times that court orders are introduced, the cases do improve. It is often for the very reason one would hope: the men are deterred by the threat of arrest. Other times, TRO’s demonstrate the woman’s resolve to end the relationship, and that convinces the man to stay away. Whatever the reasons they work, there is no argument that they don’t work in some cases. The question is: Which cases?
Restraining orders are most effective on the reasonable person who has a limited emotional investment. In other words, they work best on the person least likely to be violent anyway. Also, there is a substantial difference between using a restraining order on an abusive husband and using one on a man you dated a couple of times. That difference is the amount of emotional investment and entitlement the man feels. With a date-stalker, a TRO orders him to leave the woman alone and go about his life as it was before he met her.
The same court order used on an estranged husband asks him to abandon, at the stroke of a judge’s signature, the central features of his life: his intimate relationship, his control and ownership of another human being, his identity as a powerful man, his identity as a husband, and on and on. Thus, a TRO might ask one man to do something he can easily do, while it asks another to do something far more difficult. This distinction has been largely ignored by the criminal-justice system.
There is a glib response to all this: when men are very violent and dangerous, they are going to kill no matter what, so the TRO can’t make things worse. But here’s the rub: The TRO does hurt by convincing the woman that she is safe. One prominent family court judge has said, “Women must realize that this paper won’t stop the next fist or the next bullet.” But it isn’t only women who must realize it — it is the whole criminal-justice system. A woman can be expected to learn from her own experience, but the system should learn from all the experiences.
Carol Arnett has had experience running a battered women’s shelter and, years before that, running to a battered women’s shelter. Now the executive director of the Los Angeles County Domestic Violence Council, Arnett says:
We shelter workers have watched the criminal justice system fail to protect, and often even endanger women for so many years that we are very cautious about recommending restraining orders. We rely upon the woman herself to plan a course of action. Anyone, in or out of the system, who tells a women she must follow a particular course that goes against her own judgment and intuition is not only failing to use the philosophy of empowerment, but may well be endangering the woman.
Above all, I want to encourage people to ask this simple question: Will a restraining order help or hurt in my particular case? At least then, whatever choice is made can be called a choice, and not an automatic reaction. Think of restraining orders as an option, not the only option.
Among those options, I certainly favor law enforcement interventions such as arrests for battery, assault, breaking and entering, or other violations of the law. You might wonder how this differs from being arrested for violating a TRO. Charges for breaking the law involve the system versus the law-breaker, whereas restraining orders involve an abuser versus his wife. Many batterers find intolerable the idea of being under the control of their victims, and with a court order, a woman seeks to control her husband’s conduct, thus turning the tables of their relationship. Conversely, when the system pursues charges for a crime like battery, it is the man’s actions – not those of his wife — that bring him a predictable consequence. Abusers should be fully prosecuted for every offense, and I believe prosecutions are an important deterrent to further abuse, but even then, the women must be prepared for the possibility of escalation.
The bottom line is that there is really only one good reason to get a restraining order in a case of wife abuse: the woman believes the man will honor it and leave her alone. If a victim or a professional in the system gets a restraining order to stop someone from committing murder, they have probably applied the wrong strategy.