1. Where to start: If you need to file for a restraining order or an emergency protective order, you can obtain one from a local court without a lawyer. You will have to fill out the required paperwork, and the order, issued by the judge based on the information in the complaint, forbids your abuser from coming within a certain distance of you. It may also contain other restrictions, such as forbidding him to place phone calls or send emails to you.
2. Why you need one: Even if your husband has not been physically violent up to this point, if he has been verbally or emotionally abusive I recommend that you obtain a protective order before you inform him of your plan to divorce him. He is not stable if he is abusive and this action step could tip him over the edge. If you must call the police, they could potentially release the children to their father unless you have this type of court order in place. It will protect you and the children from him until a hearing is scheduled with the judge.
3. How long it lasts: The laws vary from state to state, but typically an emergency order remains in effect until a hearing takes place—usually within ten days—at which time both sides are allowed to present evidence. The judge then decides whether to grant a final restraining order, which may last up to a year.
4. Who you need to tell: Enlist the people you interact with at your children’s school and in your workplace in helping to keep your family safe. Give the principal of your children’s school a copy of your restraining order as well as your new phone number. Give a copy to the daycare center with as your new phone number, too. Be sure that they know not to give your new phone number to anyone who asks without your prior approval. Insist that all the necessary staff members are informed of the restraining order. Also, inform the people who take care of your children of who is permitted to pick them up and show them a picture of your husband. Make sure that they realize it is unsafe to release your children to him or to anyone else you haven’t authorized.
If your children’s caregivers ask for details, you only are required to tell them that you are in danger, and so are the children. The rest of the personal details are none of their business. Set a boundary with them if they press you for more information. You want them on your side, so just say politely that it is too painful an issue for you to discuss and that you are worried for your children’s safety. Period. If you have moved, make sure that they have been informed not to give your new address out to anyone.
Make sure that your employer, neighbors, and friends know that you have a restraining order in place. If they have never met your abuser, show them a picture of him.
5. Violations: Most states have laws that call for an arrest if the police find probable cause that a restraining order has been violated, even for driving past the victim’s house. Unfortunately, there is widespread hesitation among police to enforce restraining orders so many are not upheld. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Gonzalez vs. Little Rock that the police could not be held liable for violence that ensued due to the lack of enforcement of a restraining order.1
If your husband violates your restraining order, call the police immediately. Write down the names of the police officers involved, and the date and time that they came out in response to your call. You will need to retain this information for when you go to trial.
If your abuser violates the restraining order more than once and has threatened physical violence or has been violent, inform the police when they come out. This behavior is called stalking. The laws against stalking are not always enforced by law enforcement officials, especially if the stalker is considered a “pillar of the community.”
You may request to get the restraining order moved from family court to criminal court and have your husband prosecuted for felony stalking. You may need to be insistent about this to ensure that he is prosecuted. Stand up for yourself and don’t let someone else decide that your abuser deserves to get a free pass. It may mean life or death for you and for your children.
6. If that’s not enough: The illusion of protection is sometimes worse than not having it at all. If you fear for your safety, the best recourse is to leave home immediately with your children for a domestic violence shelter.
1 Henry Weinstein. “High Court Shields Police Who Fail to Enforce Restraining Orders,” Los Angeles Times (June 28, 2005). Available at: http://articles.latimes.com/2005/jun/28/nation/na-police28