Couraging Along: On the Effectiveness of PFAs
Welcome to the near-end of the month of July! I invite you all to take some time and energy to reflect on some highlights and challenges of this month so far. In my own experience, reminding myself of what I have done or accomplished or gotten through energizes me to keep moving along and believing in myself. Some things I have gotten through or done since the start of July: began volunteering with a program for inner city adolescents, survived my first ticket from the police, and overcame anxiety to buy stamps from a local pharmacy store, among other things.
For this blog, I thought I would focus on the effectiveness of Protection from Abuse Orders (PFAs). I have obtained my information of PFAs from WomensLaw.org. For those who may not know or who need to be reminded, a PFA is a paper signed by a judge that demands the abuser stop the abuse and if the abuser does not comply, then the judge can enforce serious consequences (such as arrest). There are three types of PFAs: emergency orders, ex parte temporary PFAs, and final PFAs. An emergency order is given out if the judge deems you to be in immediate danger and lasts until the next business day, at which you are expected to show up in court to get an ex parte temporary PFA. An ex parte temporary PFA is a PFA given out based only on information you provide (meaning the abuser is not present in court) and lasts until the court hearing for the final PFA. A final PFA is granted at a hearing in which the abuser and abused are present, and if granted, lasts up to 3 years with unlimited renewals. PFAs can serve a variety of purposes from ordering the abuser to pay financial support, making the abuser leave the home, prohibiting abuser from having contact with any shared children, and prohibiting abuser from harassing and stalking you, friends, and family.
Now, I have never had a PFA and therefore, my opinions of PFAs are without personal experience. The limitations I imagine there to be are many. For one, the person most suffering from domestic or intimate partner violence is the one who has to go to the court or call 911 and advocate for themselves to a person with power. This person with power (the police or the judge or someone else in the legal system) then gets to decide if the victim's case is "dangerous enough" to warrant a PFA. As someone who has been in abusive situations and felt mostly powerless, I can imagine it being quite difficult and maybe impossible for many folks to contact an outside person. This outside person isn't just any person, but also most likely a male in power, and considering that many but not all victims are female and that we all live in a patriarchal society, entrusting stories and vulnerabilities to a powerful, probably masculine, figure sounds like a terrifying endeavor. To me, it also seems challenging to have to advocate for yourself only to face the possibility that your situation may not be "bad enough" or "dangerous enough". The cycle of interpersonal and domestic violence already makes victims doubt themselves, their emotions, and the seriousness of the situation. For them to feel that they are deserving of a PFA, that they believe their situation is "bad enough", seems to have required them to have already overcome some emotional and mental blocks. But what about those who are still too trapped in the cycle to believe that it's really "bad enough"?
And then we have to consider racism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia within the legal system. Will legal authorities find a black woman's abuse by a white man to be just as serious as a white woman's abuse by a white man or a black man? Will legal authorities see the black woman as inviting the abuse, as tempting the man? Will legal authorities find a brown trans sex worker's abuse by their intimate partner to be dangerous if their work consists of having sex with people anyway? Will recurrent episodes of nonconsensual physical violence by a woman to her female partner during BDSM be considered domestic violence? Will legal authorities take seriously the needs of a disabled man in a wheelchair who is being consistently beaten by his girlfriend? What is written down in law is not always what is enforced in society. The enforcers - the legal authorities - have the power to choose how to read and interpret the law and seeing as how many American legal and governmental bodies have not changed their reliance on racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, and ableist beliefs, I worry that prejudices and biases are being used in deciding what PFAs to give out and to whom.
I also wonder if abusers will listen to the demands of the PFA, or if the abused will be more at risk for trying to challenge the abuser. Since police officers and judges are not entering the abused person's home and ensuring that the abuser doesn't come around, it is up to the victim to report all occurrences of battering. Recording your own experiences and again having to completely advocate for yourself during intense violence is not an easy thing to do!
Additionally, PFAs do nothing to change the behaviors of the abuser or to emotionally support the person battered. Abusers confronted with a PFA are not being taught how to handle relationships differently, are not learning how to better manage anger and sadness in ways that do not hurt others, and are not learning about consent and their own sexism, power dynamics, and errors. Even if the abuser leaves the victim/survivor and never sees them again, the abuser could still be inflicting patterns of control and violence on someone else. Additionally, the battered person is not learning how to cope with the violence that has already occurred, how to manage a household without a spouse/partner/roommate if they were sharing children, rent, or pets, nor how to manage any guilt, self-deprecation, and self-hate she/they/he may be having.
While I have listed many limitations of PFAs, I also believe there are benefits. For abusers who are intimidated by courts, police officers, and the threat of imprisonment, PFAs could be seriously halt or end their violence. For victims/survivors who are able to report abuse and report violations of a PFA, legal authorities will most likely arrest or more strictly enforce change on the abuser. For people who want their abusers away from them, PFAs can seriously encourage abusers to move away and leave the victim/survivor alone. For people who want to give the abuser a chance to move on and away rather than immediately imprisoning them, the PFA offers them that chance.
I do not write this to say "abolish PFAs". Even if they only help a handful of people, they are helping a handful of people. What I mean to argue by writing this is that there should be more options beyond PFAs for people who are seeking distance from abusers, from people who are seeking recovery, help, and support, from people who cannot access PFAs for whatever reason. These alternative options do not have to be in the legal system, but knowledge of these alternative resources may be known by the legal system and local community organizations. In the end, I feel that a victim/survivor would be better off with self-care skills, self-defense skills, knowledge on power dynamics within relationships, knowledge about consent, quick access to other places to live, quick access to friends/family/neighbors, and/or other resources, than they would a piece of paper. Better yet, maybe they could have the piece of paper and all of those other things.
~ rambles and thoughts from katie ~ if you have thoughts, comments, questions, challenges to anything written here, please comment on this post or contact Project S.A.V.E. I encourage comments and thoughts, stories and inquiries.