The Problem with Restraining Orders
[The following is a guest blog post by Kate Ranta, a survivor of gun-related domestic violence who advocates for survivors as a co-founder of Women Against the Violence Epidemic, and on her public Facebook page.]
If you read Rolling Stone, like Upworthy, or if you’ve seen “Making a Killing: Guns, Greed and the NRA” by Brave New Films, then you might know who I am. In November 2012, my father and I were shot during a terrifying episode of domestic violence perpetrated by my then-husband. I wish I could tell you today that I never saw it coming. But I did. I knew my husband wanted to hurt me and, despite my best efforts to disarm him, I knew he had legal access to as many firearms as he wanted. When the shots began to ring out that fateful night, I wasn’t just his victim. I was also the victim of a criminal justice system that prioritizes the “gun rights” of violent men over the safety of women and their families.
You see, I did obtain a temporary restraining order against my husband, but it expired relatively quickly and did nothing to prevent him from arming to the teeth. But let me start at the beginning of the story…
In January 2011, my husband, Thomas Maffei, took his abuse up a notch. By that point, I had endured emotional, psychological and financial abuse for three years—and didn’t even know it. But that night in 2011, he made it crystal clear to me that he indeed was capable of physical violence.
He picked a fight with me, accusing me yet again of flirting with men on Facebook (he was always so jealous and threatened by other people). He left the house angry, blowing up my phone with accusatory and manipulative texts for the next four hours or so. At 2:00 in the morning, he returned. He came in the house and locked me out of our bedroom. I could hear the sound of him loading his pistol through the door. He kept it in the nightstand. He also had other handguns and long guns in the closet. I turned and ran across the house and out the front door. There I stood on my stoop and called 911.
As I gave my address and told the operator that my husband had a gun, the garage door opened and out Thomas walked with our son William, who had just turned two years old. He then got in our car with William on his lap. I jumped in immediately to protect my son, and as Thomas sped up the street, he grabbed my phone and threw it to the floor of the car. He held up his fist and yelled that he’d punch me in my “fucking face” if I didn’t get out of the “fucking car.” I saw a look in his eyes. I knew he would do it. I leaped out of the car and he sped off with our son. After hiding in some bushes and then screaming for help from neighbors, none of whom responded, I ran back home.
He had returned to the house before the police got there, and put our son back in his bed.
As I approached, I saw him buddying up to the police officers who had just responded. I collapsed on one of them, sobbing. He took me into the house and said words I’d never heard before: “If he didn’t hit you this time, he will the next time. Go first thing in the morning and get a restraining order.”
The officers told me to leave the house with my two sons (William and my older son, Henry, from a previous marriage) and stay elsewhere. We stayed with my parents, while Thomas was allowed to stay in our house. No arrest was made.
I did exactly as I was told the next morning, and went to the courthouse in Broward County, Florida, on a Saturday. I arrived early, but still had to wait in a very long line to sign in. Then I was called into a dim and depressing room to fill out lengthy and confusing paperwork. Part of this process involved recounting the traumatic events of the night before. I was totally alone. Nobody was there to help me.
When I was done, a clerk took the paperwork and told me that it would be hours before the judge would grant or deny my request for a restraining order. I was advised to leave and return later that afternoon to find out. I didn’t feel capable of leaving until I knew the answer, however, so I just sat in the courthouse waiting area. The anxiety was unbearable. I couldn’t eat, and I don’t think I stopped shaking that entire day.
Fortunately, the judge did grant me a temporary restraining order (TRO), good for two weeks. It prohibited Thomas from coming within 500 feet of me, our house, our son’s school, or my parents’ house. It also prohibited him from communicating with me in any way. I was handed two packets containing copies of the order. I delivered one to the Broward Sheriff’s Office, as instructed, so they could serve Thomas. I was directed to carry my packet around with me at all times, just in case he violated the order and I had to show it to law enforcement.
When sheriff’s deputies went to serve my husband, he attempted to flee in his car. They were eventually able to corner him and give him the papers. As this was happening, an officer informed me that they would be seizing Thomas’ guns. He asked me where they were. I told them about all the handguns and long guns in the master bedroom closet as well as the nightstand. But what he said next floored me: “Just so you know, we can take the guns in the house, but he can still go out and get another gun tomorrow.”
I couldn’t believe it. I’d just taken the scary step of leaving my husband, filing for divorce, and getting a temporary restraining order. I knew this would anger him. The police had just seized his guns from our house. I knew this would anger him even more. Yet he could still go and legally buy more firearms even while under the temporary restraining order?! What was the point of it?
It’s important to understand the difference between a temporary restraining order and a permanent restraining order. Under federal law, those under a permanent restraining order are prohibited from owning or purchasing firearms for the duration of the order. In most states there are no such restrictions on those under a temporary restraining order. So while Florida law allowed deputies to seize my husband’s guns, he was free to purchase as many new firearms as he liked.
The argument against disarming those under temporary restraining orders is that they have not yet received due process, meaning the opportunity to present their own version of events before a judge. I understand that. The problem is that the evidence shows that the immediate period following a separation from an abuser is an incredibly dangerous period for women and children. According to one study from the American Journal of Public Health: “If a woman confides that she is planning to leave her abuser, it is critical to warn her not to confront him personally with her decision. Instead, she needs to leave when he is not present and leave a note or call him later. It is also clear that extremely controlling abusers are particularly dangerous under conditions of estrangement.”
Now that I had a temporary restraining order against my husband, I had just two weeks to make my case for a permanent restraining order, which might last six months, a year, or more. My husband and I appeared before a family court judge with our respective lawyers. After hearing our testimony, the judge chose to extend the temporary restraining order for another three months, rather than making it permanent. He would do this at least three times—despite my asking for a permanent restraining order every time—before recusing himself from our case without explanation.
Regarding the judge’s decision-making process, it’s not like my husband was on his best behavior while subject to the temporary restraining order. During this period, he: a) Broke into my home while I was at work; b) Broke into an apartment I had briefly rented; c) Sent me a big package with probably 20 cards with love notes; d) Vandalized my car (let air out of the tires, scratched the paint, removed the windshield wipers, ripped out the AC system) and my father’s car (sliced the tires); e) Created a fake Facebook account in order to interact with me; f) Emailed my employer and claimed I was drunk and sleeping on the job daily, and; g) Stole the hard drive from my work laptop.
Thomas spent a night in jail for the email to my employer, but that was it. One tiny slap on the wrist.
At this point, our divorce proceedings hadn’t even started yet, so I had to turn my attention there. After multiple attempts at obtaining a permanent restraining order, I had burned through nearly $20,000 in legal fees. I had also taken extensive time off my full-time job to be in court when I had to. I couldn’t do it anymore and keep my family afloat.
Thomas got his guns back from the police (through his attorney) and was now free to add to his stockpile at will. My quest for a permanent restraining order and a real sense of security had failed.
A Predictable Ending
After my last temporary restraining order expired, Thomas told me that he was going to challenge me for custody of William. He would text and email me every day, demanding that I hand him over. Then, one year and a half after the initial domestic violence incident that occurred in January 2011, Thomas did what I feared he would do. He ambushed us at my new apartment with a Glock 9mm handgun. My father was visiting and was shot twice. I was also shot twice. My son William, who was 4 by then, saw it all happen. By sheer luck, we survived. We only did because police arrived in time and Thomas knew they were outside. Thankfully, he did not want to die that day.
It’s good to be alive, but my family now has to live with the trauma and anxiety caused by PTSD; all because Thomas’ “right to keep and bear arms” seemed to matter more than our right to be safe, to live our lives absent of fear.
What about the next family to face a situation involving escalating abuse? Will they have the support of the criminal justice system during that critical period immediately following estrangement?
Thankfully, two pieces of legislation have been introduced in the U.S. Congress to prohibit those under temporary restraining orders from purchasing or owning firearms. The “Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act” (H.R. 4906/S. 1520) has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Representative Lois Capps (D-CA-24th). Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) has introduced the “Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act” (S. 2483) in the Senate. As Senator Blumenthal has noted, “When domestic abusers are most dangerous—at the height of their rage—current law is weakest in protecting victims…from gun violence. Closing this gaping loophole will save lives when temporary restraining orders leave domestic abuse victims most vulnerable to violent partners with guns.”
In addition, 16 states have laws that prohibit those under temporary restraining orders from purchasing or owning firearms. In Connecticut, Governor Dan Malloy recently signed a bill into law that will take this step. That law will go into effect in October.
Unfortunately, the issue of obtaining permanent restraining orders is much murkier. For example, look at the judge in my case. Did he fail to grant me a permanent order because he knew it would completely prohibit my husband from possessing/purchasing firearms (unlike the TROs)? Was it because he wished to defer to our pending divorce case? Was he merely responding to successful litigation tactics by Thomas’ attorney? Ultimately, it’s impossible to say.
There are some avenues open to women who find themselves in this situation—like getting an appellate court to reprimand a judge for not issuing a permanent restraining order through a writ of mandamus—but they fall more into the category of time-consuming “emergency measures” and are not adequate as a long-term solution.
Some domestic violence prevention advocates believe that if we could reconcile the differences in firearm prohibitions between temporary and permanent protection orders, we could remove a possible barrier to getting permanent protection orders in cases likes mine. For now, that is where I will put my time and effort in terms of advocacy.
Ultimately, I hope that bills like H.R. 4906, S. 1520 and S. 2483 receive a fair hearing and an up or down vote in our Congress. Lives are at stake.