On the day Elizabeth was granted a restraining order, her abuser violated it three times.
First, her estranged husband showed up at their children’s school. Then, when she was driving her seven-year-old daughter to church, she saw him sitting in his car, staring at them. The third time was when he followed them inside the church.
“It’s scary,” said Elizabeth (Crosstown does not use the full names of survivors of domestic violence). “Every day at my office I have to look out the window before I go to the restroom to look for his car. It’s an awful way to live. I have not been to the grocery store since January.”
Elizabeth said no one told her what to do if the order was violated. She called her attorney, who advised her to call the police. When they showed up, she said, one of the officers made an error on the police report, which then had to be redone.
“I don’t think they’ve [police] been trained. The first one that came, I had to show him the restraining order, show him the part that said he can’t be there,” she said.
The case was handed to a district attorney, who, Elizabeth said, told her that while her estranged husband was supposed to stay 100 yards away, no one got hurt when he violated the order. He wasn’t arrested and no additional charges were added because, Elzabeth said, the D.A. believed the violation was not violent enough.
Elizabeth’s situation, while harrowing, is not unique.
Court-issued restraining orders are often considered the best protection survivors of domestic violence can get to shield them from their abusers. They require documentation, a judge’s approval, and, in California, violators can receive a year of jail time. Los Angeles County has been relying on them increasingly in recent years, with 51,391 issued in 2019, an increase of 13.4% from two years prior. Most of these restraining orders were related to domestic violence, though it is difficult to determine an exact number. (Due to the courts being closed for certain services during the pandemic, data from 2020 is incomplete.)
Domestic violence survivors, advocates and even some in law enforcement describe a fundamental flaw in the system: An abuser who violates a restraining order rarely faces consequences. The tool, they say, is little more than a paper tiger. This can leave people exposed, or, with a false sense of security that could place them in greater danger.
“It’s common knowledge that nothing happens when restraining orders are violated,” said Rachelle Neshkes, a senior attorney at the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three women and one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. For Black women and those in the LGBTQ community, domestic violence occurs at an equal or even higher rate compared with their white, heterosexual counterparts. In 2012, fewer than 5% of LGBTQ survivors of intimate partner violence sought orders of protection.
Bernita Walker, the co-founder and executive director of Project: Peacemakers, a domestic violence advocacy organization, said domestic violence is the most underreported crime in the nation.
“We say one out of every four women is a victim of domestic violence, but it’s higher than that,” she said.
Orange County has also been granting restraining orders at a rate similar to that of Los Angeles County. In 2019, the courts issued 51,347 orders, an increase of 13% from 2017. Most of these restraining orders are in response to domestic violence. For Riverside County, the increase from 2017 to 2019 was 6.5%.
According to the Los Angeles Police Department data, in 2020 there were 765 domestic violence restraining orders violations in the city. The year prior, there were 785. Yet those who work in the field say that is the tip of the iceberg. The actual number of violations is significantly greater.
Violations without repercussions
Stephanie Saxton’s abuser violated her restraining order at least 25 times, showing up at her home whenever he pleased. When Saxton called the police, she said, they offered little help and suggested she file for divorce. Eventually, an officer trained in domestic violence was at her home when her estranged husband appeared.
“He was like, ‘He’s going to kill you, he’s following you,’” Saxton said.
Saxton eventually divorced her abuser. She’s now a lawyer and helps other women experiencing domestic violence. She said a restraining order is often the only legal recourse for people in domestic violence situations. Still, abusers violate them routinely without suffering any repercussions. (Because Saxton has spoken publicly about her story, we have included her last name.)
“Most of the time, even if they do have a good case against the abuser, the cop has messed up the search or the evidence before they even get there and it ruins their case. This is a police issue. It’s a judge issue,” Saxton said.
Michael Waldren, an attorney with Community Legal Aid of Southern California, said the statistics the LAPD keeps on restraining order violations pale in comparison to the actual number of incidents. He said the pandemic exacerbated the problem because of limited court services. Additionally, there were concerns that abusers were being diverted from jails and sent back home in the effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
He said that during the lockdown, it’s not that police were catching and releasing violators, “they weren’t even catching, because they had nowhere to put these people.”
The episodes that don’t get counted
Calculating how many times law enforcement failed to adequately respond to a report of a domestic violence restraining order violation is exceedingly difficult. That’s because police only keep records of what actions they take, not when they do nothing.
However, the LAPD does track how many calls they receive relating to domestic violence restraining orders that come through its 911 service or other hotlines. Those total around 15 per day. That number can be compared with the number of times the LAPD logs an official violation of a domestic violence restraining order, around two a day.
For example, in 2020, the LAPD received 5,126 calls about domestic violence restraining orders, but only filed 765 reports of restraining order violations, less than 15% of the total.
Det. Marie Sadanaga, the coordinator of the Los Angeles Police Department’s domestic violence unit, said officers may have difficulty enforcing restraining orders because, when they get to a scene, they need to ensure the order is valid. That means they must have proof that the abuser has been properly notified of the order.
“Until it’s served to the restrained party, it’s not valid. Sometimes the copy that victims will give us won’t have that proof of service on it. So we can’t enforce the order at that point,” she said.
Sadanaga said patrol officers also do not receive enough training about domestic abuse and need to be reminded how to respond to domestic violence restraining order calls. She added that there have been instances where officers look up a restraining order in their database and nothing comes up—even when the survivor has a physical copy.
“And so then there’s some confusion on, ‘Wait, is this valid? How do you have this paper order that looks valid but then it’s in the system [as] invalid?’ So it can get confusing to try and enforce it at those points,” she said.
Pallavi Dhawan, the director of domestic violence policy at the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office, said the LAPD is currently working with her office to develop a training program on best practices to handle restraining order violations. She said there are concerns with how restraining orders are enforced.
“Sometimes we hear complaints from survivors who say that law enforcement doesn’t take their call seriously,” she said.
Restraining orders only work if abusers abide by the law. Dr. Carolann Peterson, a retired lecturer at the University of Southern California who specializes in domestic violence, said whether restraining orders are adhered to depends on the abuser.
“Every abuser threatens to kill. The problem is, I can’t tell you who’s actually going to carry it out and who isn’t. And that’s the same problem you’ve got with a restraining order: Who’s going to follow it, who’s going to disobey it, who’s going to wait until it expires,” she said.
‘Abusers are very, very savvy’
Domestic violence is one of the most frequent and dangerous calls for officers to attend to. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Fatalities Report, seven of the 48 officers killed by firearms last year were responding to domestic violence calls.
Yet professionals who work in the field say they still struggle to get the police to understand the gravity of the issue.
“Enforcement of restraining orders does not have the priority that we feel it should,” said Alyson Messenger, the managing staff attorney at Jenesse Center, a non-profit domestic violence prevention and intervention organization.
One of the overarching concerns, Messenger added, is that police do not fully understand and are unprepared to respond adequately to domestic violence calls. She said this is troubling in part because survivors must endure a lengthy legal process.
“It comes up repeatedly with our client population. ‘You know, I have this restraining order, he continues to violate it, the police aren’t doing anything,’” Messenger said. “Generally, nothing happens until there have been multiple violations and/or a serious threat or actual assault has occurred.”
To obtain a restraining order in California, one must provide evidence and fill out a series of forms, including the 28-question DV-100. A judge then spends several minutes deciding whether or not to grant a temporary restraining order that day. If an order is filed, it can be three weeks until the case is heard in court.
Even then, judges can reject the request if they feel there is not enough evidence or risk.
Messenger said it’s common for survivors to give up because of how difficult and inadequate the process to obtain and enforce a restraining order can be.
“Abusers are very, very savvy. One thing they are experts at is gaming and manipulating the system, and they recognize the loopholes,” Messenger said.
Elizabeth said she was warned that what she had was as good as a piece of paper, and since her estranged husband violated the order, she’s had anxiety.
“I’m always concerned and looking over my shoulder because I wasn’t expecting it,” she said.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
How we did it: The data on countywide restraining orders was provided by the California Department of Justice. Numbers of Los Angeles Police Department calls relating to domestic violence restraining orders are derived from an analysis of service call records. The number of reports of domestic violence restraining order violations is calculated from LAPD crime data.
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