If you’re a victim of domestic abuse then it’s highly likely that your divorce will not be safe without a protection order. And sadly a protection order will only go so far.
Abuse, whether it’s physical, emotional or financial abuse, makes ending a relationship much, much harder. We know that on average it takes a victim seven attempts to leave an abuser before staying away for good. We also know that the risk of being killed increases 75 percent when a women leaves her batterer.
These are somber statistics.
Getting a protection order is an essential way of shielding yourself but there’s more you need to know. What exactly is a protection order? How does a protection differ from a restraining order? When should you get one? How do you get one? How safe does having a protection order make the world for you?
Joining me for this Conversation is Chicago-based Karen Covy. She’s one of my go to legal people. Covy is a divorce attorney, turned divorce adviser and coach. Listen in below or keep reading for a synopsis.
Domestic Abuse Hotline – 1-800-799-7233
Restraining Or Protection Order?
Based on many of my conversations, the terms ‘restraining order’ and ‘protection order’ are often used interchangeably. To many people they have the same meaning. The terms are legally defined and so the precise meaning will differ from state to state.
Generally, however, Covy says that protection orders relate to a person or people. A victim may get a protection order so the abuser can’t come near them or their children.
A restraining order stops a person from doing something such as taking all the money out of a bank account or infringing on a copyright. Restraining orders can be much broader.
When Can You Get A Protection Order?
What makes it challenging for victims is that you can’t get a protection order until you’ve been harmed and that in itself makes it hard to leave an abuser.
“It’s not enough for your spouse to say ‘I’m going to hit you’ or ‘I’m going to kill you’,” said Covy. “They’ve got to have the ability to do it.”
That means you have to wait until something happens such as they push you or hit you.
“If you’ve got someone who’s calling or texting dozens of times a day or doing it at work and therefore your job is in jeopardy, those actions may be grounds for you to get an order of protection against the abuser,” said Covy.
If you are genuinely afraid, the smartest move is to get a legal consult with a domestic relations attorney or start working with your local domestic abuse organization. This way you can find out the law in your specific location and what to expect.
This is critically important. When you don’t plan ahead, don’t get solid advice, then your request for protection may not be granted and then you have to live with consequences you didn’t want.
It is also important to determine the specific conditions you feel are necessary for your safety. That might include restrictions on your abuser coming to your place of work, for example. The chance to plan ahead gives you the opportunity to be as thorough as possible.
“If an abuser is really determined to be abusive, they’re going to find a way to get around whatever it says in the order unless the order is very specific,” said Covy. “You’ve got to know who you’re dealing with and to the extent you can think about these things before you’re in crisis, it will help you do better when the crisis happens.”
Domestic Abuse Hotline – 1-800-799-7233
You Will Have To Go To Court
You will absolutely have to go to court and appear before a judge to get an order of protection. This is not something your lawyer can do without your presence. However…
“The laws in most places are written in a way that you can go to court at least initially without having to notify your abuser,” said Covy. “Otherwise a lot of people would never bother to get an order of protection. They’d be too afraid they’re going to notify their abuser and they’re never going to make it to the courthouse.”
That first time in court, assuming there are grounds, the judge will issue an initial or temporary order. That order isn’t going to last for long. It could be just a few days, a week, a few weeks. It depends on your jurisdiction.
Once the initial order is issued, usually the sheriff will serve the order on your abuser.
The order also sets a follow up court date at which your abuser is required to appear and respond to whatever you’ve alleged. If you want the order of protection to be extended, then you will have to appear again and testify. This time both you and your abuser will be in the courtroom at the same time.
If You And Your Abuser Are Living Together
Once the initial protection order is granted, your abuser is barred from entering your home. They can petition the court sooner than the next scheduled hearing date to request permission to go the house, with a sheriff escort, to get certain things, such as clothing or a personal computer.
Your Safety Isn’t Guaranteed
The terms of your protection order are going to depend on the restrictions you requested. That’s why it’s smart to plan ahead and work with a professional to help you think of all the situations and locations from which your abuser should be restricted.
Most likely, your protection order is going to say that your abuser must maintain a minimum specified distance from you. That means, if for example you go to church and your abuser is there, it is the abuser’s responsibility to maintain the required distance.
“But you’ve got to be careful,” said Covy. “Just because you have an order of protection, it doesn’t mean you’re completely safe. It’s a piece of paper. It’s not going to stop a knife and it’s not going to stop a bullet.”
For that reason, Covy suggests that you make conscious, deliberate decisions about where you go. If you go to church and there are lots of people there and those people can help to keep you separate, that may be OK. If you like to walk or run a certain trail that your abuser knows and the trail is isolated, then that’s likely not a smart decision.
What If You Need To Communicate With Your Abuser?
The most common reasons you might need to communicate with your abuser is to discuss divorce or parenting issues. If you want to communicate, then the protection order needs to be written in a way to permit it. That goes back to the planning ahead conversation.
And it is more complicated: you need to think about how you’re going to communicate. In most cases, phone calls and text messages to your regular phone number are not advisable. Even messages to your regular email address are not recommended.
There are two reasons for this. One, it’s too easy for the volume of communications to become intrusive and unmanageable. Second, if you are going to communicate you want to have a record that you can provide to the court, if necessary.
If you have an attorney, then communications can be funneled through them although could get expensive very quickly.
Another option is to use one of the many co-parenting apps that are available. With these applications, once you’ve written an email or a message, there is no way to alter it. You’ll be able to request a certified transcript of the communications for submission to the court. Covy has a recent blog post comparing the different co-parenting apps.
“When you’ve got the phone and your abuser is pinging you every five minutes, your anxiety level goes through the roof,” said Covy. “This helps to eliminate that.”
Always Carry Your Protection Order
Once you have a protection order, you should always carry a copy with you and make sure it isn’t your only copy. You should have a copy in your home, in your car, in your purse, at your office, in your gym bag and so on.
“If you see your abuser, if your abuser violates that order, and you call the police, the police are going to want to see that order of protection,” said Covy. “It makes a difference. You’ve got to have it handy.”
Who Else Needs To Know?
Many people don’t want other people know their personal business and especially when it involves law enforcement, but safety always outweighs privacy.
When the protection order includes your children and your abuser is barred from seeing them, then administrators and teachers at your children’s school(s) need to know. With after-school activities, such as soccer, the activity leader needs to know and probably needs a copy of the protection order. Should your abuser show up at school or the activity to pick up your child, then the adult in charge will know that the abuser is not authorized to pick up and will call the police.
If you work in a building that has security or requires visitors to sign in, it would be smart to let the building officials know about your situation and to provide them with a copy of the order of protection.
You should also consider sharing what’s going on with your employer.
“You don’t want this to endanger your job,” said Covy. “If your employer knows what’s going on, they may be more sympathetic towards you and say, if we see this person, we’re going to call the police.”
Don’t Allow Yourself To Be Provoked
As tensions run high, it’s critical that you stay in control of your own reactions while in the presence of your abuser. Don’t be tempted to kick or smash your fist into the wall, or throw something in frustration, even if it isn’t aimed at your abuser.
These sorts of incidents can result in your abuser calling the police. If you are in a mandatory arrest state, it could be you that gets arrested. It could be you that gets charged with domestic violence. You could be one spending a few days in jail.
How Safe Are You?
Having an order of protection is better than not having one. It means that if your abuser does come to your house, and you call the police, it is more likely that they will be taken away and put in jail for some period of time.
“When the abuser is in jail, you’re at least safe for that period of time,” said Covy. “They physically can’t get to you. But it’s still just a piece of paper. You’ve still got to take precautions to be safe.”
That means making sure you’re never in a room alone with your abuser. It means making arrangements to exchange your children at a police station or a supervised visitation center. It means not walking alone and changing the patterns of where and when you go places. It means making sure you always have your cell phone and it’s charged.
Domestic Abuse Hotline – 1-800-799-7233
My guest for this Conversation was Chicago-based divorce attorney turned adviser/coach, Karen Covy. Find out more about Karen’s Divorce Roadmap at her website. Follow Karen on Twitter @KarenCovy and on Facebook.