‘Better than nothing’: Do restraining orders actually work?

It’s a decidedly alarming headline: Man hid in ex-girlfriend’s attic for weeks despite a restraining order, say police.

That particular headline is from Pittsburgh, but the issue is by no means limited to one city, and the questions it raises — do protective court orders actually work? — is one that advocates across Canada are also grappling with.

If they don’t work — if an American man can hide out in his ex-girlfriend’s home for two weeks and a British woman can be fined by police for wasting their time complaining of a stalker only for said stalker to then kill her — what’s the point?

That’s assuming the court approves the protection order to begin with. In Winnipeg, court documents revealed that three protection orders against Manuel Ruiz, a firefighter and jujitsu instructor later charged with sexual assault, were denied.

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In some cases, it is an effective deterrent, says Hilary Linton, a family mediator and arbitrator in Toronto. But what it shouldn’t be is the only tool to protect the victims of stalking and domestic abuse.

“It’s better than nothing,” she says. “But really you have to dig deeper and be aware of who is this person, what’s motivating them, how they’re inclined to behave, and what can be done to enhance the effectiveness of a restraining order.”

Although self-reported Statistics Canada data shows the prevalence of stalking dropped from nine per cent of Canadians in 2004 to six per cent in 2014, the number of people stalked by an intimate partner did not decline, and most victims are young and female.

FROM 2016: How the Canadian system continues to fail domestic abuse victims

Click to play video: 'FULL EPISODE: Saturday, February 20th 2016'
FULL EPISODE: Saturday, February 20th 2016

Although there have been media reports from some provinces about the number of protection order requests filed in a given year (Manitoba, for instance, hit a five-year high in 2017), Statistics Canada doesn’t have comprehensive data.

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While the organization tries to collect information on peace bonds — that’s a protection order for more serious cases that don’t require a family connection with the person (a restraining order does) — a spokesperson said, “most jurisdictions are not able to provide the data.”

Restraining orders are useful when you’re dealing with a “more reasonable” perpetrator, says Suzie Dunn, a part-time professor at the University of Ottawa. “They’re more likely to take it seriously and to actually give the person who’s made the complaint distance.”

On the flip side, Dunn says the person who already “doesn’t care about authority” isn’t likely to abide by a restraining order. In some cases, she says, just knowing an order has been requested can “enrage someone” and heighten the safety risk.

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Adding to the safety considerations? The “danger zone,” which is the time between when someone puts in an application for a restraining order and when it’s approved and makes it a criminal offence for the stalker to contact the applicant.

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Figuring out who is a reasonable person and who will likely react poorly and in some cases, violently, to a restraining order is a “very sophisticated field of determinations,” Linton says. Harming someone requires motive and opportunity, she says, and while restraining orders might make the latter “a bit hard to achieve,” they aren’t a failsafe.

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It’s also a struggle because you’re constantly trying to balance protection with empowerment — people in situations where they are being abused or stalked need to make the best decision for themselves. Yet, at the same time:

“We tend to forget that people who are often most at risk minimize their own perceptions of risk.”

Think of Elana Fric, she says, the Toronto doctor who was killed by her husband after filing for divorce (he pleaded guilty to killing her last month). Some of the comments Fric made that were reported after her murder indicated she didn’t think he would hurt her because he — also a doctor — had too much to lose.

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Then, Linton says, think of the Pittsburgh woman whose ex-boyfriend violated the restraining order to hide in her attic for two weeks. He was caught after she found him in her bedroom. He allegedly grabbed her and put a hand over her mouth, but she was able to get away and ran screaming outside.

But she spoke about the two weeks prior, about having this feeling that someone was in her home because a blanket had been misplaced and the toilet seat was left up.

“I had an intuition but I ignored it, I brushed it aside,” she said. “I didn’t want to seem paranoid.”

It’s an incredibly common response for victims, Linton says. “They don’t know how to trust their own judgment.”

It’s compounded, Dunn says, by the fact that if people have made complaints in the past and were discounted by the police or didn’t feel they got an adequate response, “there’s a loss of faith … so they sometimes don’t always end up calling.”

Shana Brice was 19 years old when her ex-boyfriend slit her throat and set her bedroom on fire. Prior to her death, police had fined her for wasting their time, even though she’d found her ex-boyfriend stealing a spare key, coming into her bedroom, and even following her in her car.

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“Part of it is a classic, ‘we need to believe in women,’” Dunn says. Listen when someone tells you that someone keeps calling and hanging up or it looks like someone is reading his or her emails or always showing up in the same place.

“We need to recognize that if they’re feeling fearful about it, they probably have good reason to.”

Worried you or someone you know is being stalked or a victim of domestic violence? Here are some resources that might help:

READ MORE: Should Canada restrict the use of gag orders in sexual abuse cases?

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