While Debbie Johnson was choked to death in her mobile home two weeks ago, the manila folder that contained the protective order against her son Michael Johnson lay somewhere in the quiet second floor of the Christian County Justice Center, three miles away.
Sheriff’s officials tried to apply the order and arrest Michael the night before, after Debbie called to report that he was banging on her windows. But when they arrived, Michael was gone.
A neighbor said he returned late at night and investigators believe he killed Debbie in the morning. With no deputies there to arrest him, the order was worthless.
Sheriff’s department spokesman Chris Miller explained that protective orders function as tools for law enforcement: If police catch someone violating an order, they can arrest the person with no warrant or assault charges.
But their effectiveness sometimes depends on police catching the person red-handed. A mere piece of paper can’t keep an angry ex-husband or son away from his potential victim, Miller said.
Roughly eight hours after Debbie’s death, a school bus pulled up beside her mobile home, carrying Michael’s son, of whom Debbie had custody. No one knew Debbie was died on the back porch of her home, and Michael was waiting for the bus. He intended to pick the boy up.
But after Debbie had obtained the protection order, roughly a week earlier, she took a copy to Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School and told Principal Sarah Newman the school shouldn’t release the child to Michael.
Newman made at least two copies of the document: one for the child’s file and one for his bus driver, Fheda Bass, said Christian County Public Schools spokesman Regan Huneycutt.
When Michael asked Bass to give him custody of the child, Bass remembered the protective order and refused. A school official took the child back to MLK, and deputies found Debbie’s body later that afternoon. They arrested Michael late that night.
Huneycutt credited the legal mechanism — and Bass’ good judgment — for protecting the child.
“It is easy to say it’s just a piece of paper,” Huneycutt said. “But in this instance that piece of paper is what we think ultimately protected that child from harm.”
Though Debbie Johnson’s case demonstrates the limit of protective orders’ effectiveness, it’s hardly an ordinary case. Local experts say the orders ward off violence in the vast majority of cases, and court records align with that assertion. The case of Michael Johnson’s son could be proof of the orders’ tangible, measurable benefits.
A better toolkit
Any adult can obtain an emergency protective order against another member of the same household. The petitioner need only report an act or threat of violence and express concern that the violence will return.
A parent can also obtain a protective order on a child’s behalf.
Whenever the court issues an EPO, a judge schedules a hearing to determine whether he should issue a long-term protective order, known as a domestic violence order. A sheriff’s deputy serves the accused person a summons and a copy of the EPO.
If the judge grants a long-term order at the hearing, Kentucky law outlines a set of requirements for the accused person and leaves the judge responsible for specifics. For instance, the accused person must not come within a certain distance of the petitioner, but the judge chooses the distance. It must not exceed 500 feet.
Judges can also send the accused person to counseling for batterers, which the Pennyroyal Center offers.
At a minimum, the order forbids the accused person to contact the petitioner without the court’s permission, commit further abuse, damage the petitioner’s property or attempt to buy a firearm.
Committing any of those violations gives police grounds to arrest the person.
Protective orders also give police a tool that ordinary court orders don’t provide: Details of the orders show up in each perpetrator’s file in the national database of crime-related information.
When a person is released from jail, the database does not show his release conditions, Hopkinsville Police Chief Guy Howie said. For instance, if a man goes to jail for beating his wife, then the jail releases him on the condition that he stay at least 500 feet away from her, police can’t learn about that condition just by scanning the registry.
Debbie Johnson’s case suggests that the benefits of protective orders can extend beyond police, particularly in matters involving child custody. But since the courts only notify the parties directly affected when they issue protective orders, agencies such as schools depend on parents’ initiative.
When orders fail
Helen Kinton, director of the Sanctuary House, a Hopkinsville shelter for battered women, said that in her experience angry boyfriends and husbands often breach court orders once, to test the boundaries. A single arrest is usually enough to scare them off for good.
“Most people don’t want to go to jail,” she said. “It may not cure the problem, but it improves behavior.”
Of course, when a perpetrator is bent on an ex-girlfriend, a court order won’t keep him away, she said.
“For perpetrators who are crazy, and mad, and vengeful, I don’t know if anything is gonna work for that,” she said.
In such cases, the perpetrator’s court files — including EPO applications — are often full of warning signs that glare at family members from hindsight. Debbie Johnson reported just a week before her death that her son got drunk nearly every day, that he had recently tried to choke her and that he had threatened to kill her.
But similar warning signs also pervade the files of cases in which the EPOs actually work, Kinton said. Many people prone to abuse routinely make empty threats, so their victims gradually stop taking them seriously. And in most cases those threats are never realized.
“We all threaten to do things that we have no intention to follow through with,” Kinton said. “You never know when that guy has had his gut full and is gonna stop threatening to come after you and come after you.”
The other dominant cause for the orders to fail is that battered women return to abusive relationships in staggering ratios, Kinton said.
She said many women who apply for EPOs are not seeking refuge from short-term boyfriends, but from husbands to whom they’ve been married for 10 or 15 years. Most married women who enter the Sanctuary House don’t want to get divorced, Kenton said. They obtain EPOs only in hopes of curbing the violence.
Sometimes they’re too eager to believe their husbands have changed and it’s safe to go back, Kenton said. If the EPO works, then when it’s time to apply for a long-term order, a woman might assume she doesn’t need it because the problem has ceased.
Also, many battered women depend on their abusive boyfriends or husbands financially. They may think, “This is where my next meal’s coming from. This is where my child gets their clothes from,” Howie said.
Former Christian District Judge Peter Macdonald, who teaches workshops to judges all over the country on matters of domestic violence, offered a third reason: Some battered women never overcome their fear that the abuser will find and attack them.
He recalled hearing about a woman in the Lexington area who slept with her clothes on every night for months after she entered a domestic violence shelter, for fear she’d have to escape in the middle of the night. In the end she returned to the abuser — because she felt better knowing when the violence was coming, Macdonald said.
On the other hand, Macdonald said, staying in touch with the abuser, or even returning to live with him, sometimes saves the woman’s life. He knows of cases in which angry ex-boyfriends killed women because the women tried to end abusive relationships for good.
“People in these relationships often know a lot more than the professionals about when they’re at risk,” he said.
In 2008, Christian County judges issued 406 emergency protective orders and 132 domestic violence orders. That year, police charged 42 people with violating EPOs or DVOs, but only 23 were found guilty. The rest were found not guilty, had their charges dismissed, or had a grand jury declare no true bill.
Going by the larger number, of perpetrators who received EPO summonses — because that number comprises everyone who later received a DVO — roughly 5.7 percent of the perpetrators were found guilty of violating the orders. That’s a ratio of approximately one in 17.
The numbers increased slightly in 2009. Judges issued about 429 EPOs and 146 DVOs, and police charged 35 people with violating the orders. Eighteen of those charged were found guilty, and one case is still pending.
That means 4.2 percent, about one in 25, were found guilty.
So far this year the court has issued about 302 EPOs and 96 DVOs. Of 20 people charged with violating them, 11 have been found guilty and five cases are still pending. That puts the percentage of convicted offenders around 3.6, for a ratio of about one in 28.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that in 27 out of 28 cases the perpetrator never violates the court order. Consider the scenario that a man could show up outside his ex-girlfriend’s house, then run away when he sees police sirens and never receive a charge.
Additionally, a petitioner will sometimes agree to meet with a perpetrator in spite of the court order, but mutual consent doesn’t make the meeting legal. Restraining orders depend on the will of the court, not of the petitioner.
But Kentucky law leaves police almost no room for officers to make judgment calls, Hopkinsville Police Chief Guy Howie said. If an officer finds someone in violation of a restraining order, he must arrest the suspect. It’s unlikely, therefore, that many perpetrators get caught violating court orders and walk away without criminal charges.
It’s impossible to gauge the effectiveness of restraining orders with any precision, since there’s no way to determine how many of those perpetrators would have committed additional acts of violence if the restraining orders weren’t in place. But the numbers align with a rule that several sources repeated: Most people, including those who abuse their spouses, respect or fear the law enough to obey court orders.
Nick Tabor can be reached at 270-887-3231 or firstname.lastname@example.org