According to the Georgia Crime Information Center, there were 23,086 family violence and stalking orders issued in 2012. Every case is unique, but abusers generally fall into two categories — those who adhere to court orders and those who blatantly disregard them.
Many victims of family violence are safer with protective orders. A recent National Institute of Justice study found that protective orders worked for half of the victims who obtained them. An overwhelming majority of the other half reported significant decreases in threats, violence, control and fear.
The study also examined the costs of protective orders and found that, accounting for the many “hidden” costs to society of partner violence including criminal justice system costs, lost employment, medical care costs, mental health care costs and diminished quality of life, one small state came out $85 million ahead on about 9,500 protective orders issued to partner violence victims in a one year period.
We do not hear from many people who benefit from protective orders because once victims gain peace from the violence, they move on with their lives. They do not call the police or come back to the courtroom to report their safety.
Highlighting only the failures of the criminal justice system is dangerous. It discourages people in abusive relationships from seeking help. If victims believe that the criminal justice system cannot protect them, they may remain exposed to continuing harm that can be prevented.
Tragically for the family and friends of Donna Kristofak, a protective order did not save her life. Her ex-husband disregarded the law. He repeatedly threatened her, violated court orders, stalked her, and according to police, eventually killed her. For many women like Donna, the law was not enough.
The National Institute of Justice study confirmed experts’ suspicions that protective order violators who stalk, intimidate and harass the victims, like Donna’s ex-husband, are extremely dangerous. The study found that victims who were stalked after they had a protective order experienced more frequent and severe abuse, property damage and distress than victims who experienced protective order violations without stalking.
Additionally, victims who were stalked spent significantly more time talking to police, although the stalking offenders were not charged any more frequently than the violators who did not stalk.
The increased risk posed by family violence offenders who disregard court orders suggests that victims of stalking need all of the support and protection they can get from the criminal justice system and other agencies.
January is National Stalking Awareness Month, a time to focus on a crime that affected 6.6 million victims in one year. Stalking is a crime in all 50 states, yet many criminal justice professionals and victims underestimate its seriousness. We must encourage victims of violence to seek refuge through domestic violence agencies like the YWCA of Northwest Georgia (770-427-3390 or 1-800-33-HAVEN) and the criminal justice system — they save lives. And, our courts and law enforcement agencies must take family violence and stalking with the utmost seriousness — swiftly and strongly punishing abusers and stalkers and becoming educated about lethality factors.
In addition, the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and Georgia Association of Solicitors-General are endorsing legislation this year that will give law enforcement officers more authority to arrest family violence offenders who willfully violate court orders for the purpose of harassing and stalking victims. We encourage legislators and the public to support this legislation.
There is no one solution for victims. But protective orders, along with coordinated community responses, are much more than pieces of paper for many. These are tools to create safety for victims and their children and to provide accountability for the unacceptable behaviors of perpetrators.
Judge Stephen D. Kelley was appointed as a superior court judge in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit in 2009. Prior to that appointment, Kelley served as district attorney. Kelley was appointed to the Commission by Gov. Perdue in 2010, was re-appointed by Gov. Deal in 2012, and became chair last year.
Judge Peggy H. Walker is a juvenile court judge in Douglas County. She has served as Trustee for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges for the past six years. She has served on the Georgia Commission on Family Violence since 2006, was chair from 2010-12 and is currently the Chair of the Legislative and Policy Committee.