How to File a Restraining Order
How to file a restraining order and tips for knowing whether it's right for you.
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Over the course of their lifetime, one in four American women experience severe physical violence by someone with whom they had an intimate relationship. One in six women experience stalking, oftentimes by an abusive ex-partner. The consequences of domestic violence and stalking can be fatal: Almost half of female homicide victims in the US are killed by an intimate partner.
One legal tool a victim of domestic violence or stalking can use to help protect themselves is a restraining order, also known as a Civil Domestic Violence Protection Order (DVPO). A DVPO is a legal order issued by a court that forbids someone, known as the "respondent," from engaging in certain activities that affect the plaintiff, or the person who filed for the order. In many cases, a person who takes out a restraining order against an abusive partner, ex-partner, or stalker is asking the court to keep that person away from them because they fear for their safety.
The scope of a protection order will look differently depending on what state you live in and the specific patterns of abuse you're experiencing, but DVPOs generally apply when the abuser is a current or former married or dating partner, or someone with whom the victim lived or has a child. Some states—such as South Carolina, Florida, and Texas—also have specific stalking protection orders in place for victims who are not related to or ever had a relationship with their stalker.
Research has shown that a protection order can help stop or significantly reduce violence, particularly if it includes firearm restrictions. Not all states, however, require people who have been served with an emergency protection order to forfeit their access to guns for the duration of the order—even though the likelihood of an abused woman being murdered by her abuser increases five-fold if the abuser owns a firearm.
If you’ve experienced physical or sexual abuse, stalking, or harassment, only you can decide if getting a restraining order against your stalker/abuser is the right move for you. Here’s a general look at the process, and some things to keep in mind while you're considering what's right for you.
Reach out to an advocate or attorney for help.
Qudsia Raja is the policy director at the National Domestic Violence Hotline. She tells Broadly that one of the most important things a survivor can do as they consider getting a protection order is talk to a trained professional who helps domestic violence and stalking victims. “The [legal] system isn’t perfect, and even more so for someone from a marginalized community. [If] you don’t speak English very well, or if you’re not familiar with the legal system, it can be daunting and just very anxiety-inducing,” she says. “Talking to somebody about your options and laying out what safety looks like for you is a really good first step.”
There are a number of national survivor advocacy organizations you can turn to for free help figuring out your options, including the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Center for Victims of Crimes’ Stalking Resource Center. You can also search for a local advocate in your state or contact Legal Services Corporation for legal assistance if you’re low-income.
Decide if a protection order is the best option for your safety.
Protection orders can come with their own risks, and may not feel like the best route for some survivors. “Safety means something different to everybody,” Raja says, “and to a lot of communities of color, safety does not mean reaching out to law enforcement because it can increase violence.”
There’s also the risk of having an abuser retaliate against you. One of the most dangerous points in an abusive relationship is when a victim decides to leave their partner, and for many people, leaving often begins in the context of a protection order.
One question you should ask yourself, Raja says, is whether or not you think a protective order is actually going to make you feel safer based on what you know about your abuser/stalker. “Go with your gut,” she says. And remember that a protection order is just one tool for seeking out safety. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a great resource for more information about safety planning.
Learn your local laws.
The process for obtaining a protective order varies state by state. WomensLaw.org, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, has a comprehensive database that breaks down everything you need to know about restraining orders by state, including what types of orders there are where you live and which one may apply in your specific situation. In Georgia, for example, you can apply for a family violence protective order if a spouse or other family member has hurt or threatened to hurt you. If the person you’re afraid of is someone other than a family member, you may be eligible for a stalking protection order. Reference the Stalking Resource Center to learn about how your state approaches these legal tools.
Also, if you haven’t already, start documenting incidents of abuse and stalking: Take screenshots of menacing messages, photograph any physical harm you’ve endured, and document any other evidence you think can be used against your abuser/stalker. The Stalking Resource Center has a printable sample incident log that you may find helpful to record this information, which will be useful for law enforcement.
First, file for a temporary restraining order.
In order to start the process of obtaining a permanent, or “final” protective order, you must file a petition with the clerk at your state court for a “temporary,” or “emergency,” order. (The terminology differs depending on where you live.) This is your first opportunity to tell the courts what you’ve endured. In your petition, detail how your abuser and/or stalker hurt or threatened you, including the most recent event, and try to be as descriptive and specific as possible.
Just filing the paperwork can be intimidating and overwhelming, especially if you’ve never had to deal with the legal system. If you seek the support from an advocate or attorney, however, they can help. In addition to explaining some of the legalese, they can also help you decide what remedies you’re looking for, such as ordering your abuser and/or stalker to stay away from you, requiring them to pay for your medical expenses, or, if you have children together, giving you temporary sole custody.
An advocate or attorney may also help you better articulate your experience in your petition. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to folks that have reached out to a domestic violence shelter and were shocked to understand they were in [an abusive] relationship,” Raja says. “A lot of times, for example, people won’t know how to identify emotional or psychological abuse; a lot of folks don’t know how to identify financial abuse.”
Once a judge has looked over your petition and is convinced that your concerns for your personal safety are warranted, they will issue a temporary order, which lasts anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, depending on where you live. That period gives you or law enforcement enough time to serve your abuser the petition for a permanent order and a summons to appear in court for a required hearing. (In some states, such as North Carolina and Indiana, however, the temporary order can’t be enforced until your abuser is actually served those papers.)
Go to court.
To make your temporary order of protection permanent (in most states, “permanent” orders still come with an expiration date, lasting anywhere from one to five years), you’ll need to return to court and tell the judge your story during a hearing. Unlike the process of getting an emergency order, this time, your stalker and/or abuser will have the opportunity to defend themselves by sharing their side of the story. In other words, you will have to face your them in court, if they show up.
There’s no right to counsel in restraining order cases, so you’ll either have to represent yourself or find an attorney. Jennifer Payne, a civil legal aid attorney who’s filed for protection orders in Illinois on behalf of clients, says having representation can sometimes make or break your case.
An attorney, for example, can help you better understand what kinds of evidence to bring, she tells Broadly. “‘Do you have medical records? Do you have photographs, text messages, Facebook postings? Do you have voicemails that you saved on your phone? Do you have a neutral witness?’ [As your attorney] I would want to know what evidence you have to corroborate and then make sure that you have copies of that.”
Once you’ve been granted a protection order, use it.
A protection order can only help deter violence if it’s enforced. In other words, you need to call law enforcement if your abuser chooses to ignore the order. “If I have an order of protection and I never call 911, then it’s not worth the piece of paper it’s written on,” Payne says. Depending on where you live, if your abuser/stalker violates the protection order, they can be held in contempt of court and arrested and charged with a crime.
“But if I have the order of protection and I use it and I call 911 when [my abuser] is ringing my doorbell, then it’s an incredibly powerful weapon.”
If you are being stalked, you can call the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime on 855-484-2846. If you are based in the UK, you can call Paladin on 020 3866 4107.