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How to make a restraining order work

  • Diane Rosenfeld is a lecturer at Harvard Law School
  • Her expertise includes gender violence and sexual coercion
  • She says the key to making restraining orders work is treating domestic violence as a real threat
Diane Rosenfeld says the key to making restraining orders work is treating domestic violence as a real threat.
Diane Rosenfeld

Editor’s note: Diane Rosenfeld, J.D., LL.M, is a lecturer at Harvard Law School, working with students who focus on improving how the criminal justice system responds to domestic violence. She is a public speaker and an adviser to the High Risk Team developed by the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center. Previously, she served as the senior counsel to the Office of Violence Against Women of the U.S. Department of Justice. 

The recent salon shootings in Florida and Wisconsin are strikingly similar and merit our attention.

In each, a woman tried to leave her abusive partner and had to plead for help from a court to obtain a restraining order.

In Florida, the abusive man went on a shooting rampage after he was served with the injunction but before the court hearing. He shot his ex-girlfriend, Marcia Santiago, and killed three other women in the salon, including a pregnant 28-year-old and another salon employee who tried to get a restraining order against him as well. He then committed suicide.

In Wisconsin, before he was to appear in court for the hearing on the restraining order sought by his wife, Radcliffe Haughton opened fire on the women in the spa where his wife worked, killing her and three other women, wounding four more. He, too, committed suicide.

These horrific murders leave us with many questions; prominent among them is why weren’t the restraining orders strong enough to prevent these tragedies? While restraining orders work in the vast majority of cases, did they fail in these cases? And if so, what can be done?

The answer is fairly simple: We must listen to women when they tell us that their abusive intimate partner has threatened to kill them if they leave.

Before she was brutally murdered by her ex-husband, Zina Haughton wrote in her court petition that “his threats terrorize my every waking moment.” Before she was shot in Florida, Marcia Santiago wrote to the court that she had feared for her life and that her estranged boyfriend had threatened to kill her if she sought an injunction.

Treating this as domestic terrorism is the starting point. These are lethal threats that must be taken as such. They are not “domestic disputes” like arguments over whose turn it is to do the dishes. In each case, the woman was punished for seeking help. Why? Because domestic violence is about power and control, and when a woman seeks to leave an abuser, he views this as a loss of control. Abusers do not want their victims to leave; rather, they wants them to stay but in a subordinate position.

Warning signs help predict—and thus prevent—domestic violence cases from escalating into homicides. Top predictors of future violence include threats to kill, access to weapons and sexual jealousy. All domestic violence cases should be screened for potential lethality. This can be done through a simple danger assessment that law enforcement or other first responders can use.

In Massachusetts, we are using high-risk case management teams to closely monitor cases that show signs of dangerousness, and we use GPS monitoring of offenders to enforce the terms of the restraining order. Domestic violence offenders can be restricted to geographic zones, and if they breach their boundaries, both law enforcement and potential victims can be immediately notified.

This is not rocket science—this is merely treating domestic terrorism as the real threat to women’s lives that it is. The Florida and Wisconsin murders show us that domestic violence does not only affect the people inside the home—we are all at risk.

If you or someone you know is in danger, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (800-799-SAFE) or TTY 1-800-787-3224.

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