Many women lack the financial means to leave an abusive relationship and find themselves trapped in both poverty and abuse. Of those who do attempt to escape, some choose to petition a judge for a civil restraining order, also called a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order, for protection from abuse, harassment, threats, or intimidation. Research has shown that PFAs can promote women’s safety and help them manage the threat of abuse.
However, a new study by sociologists at the University of Pittsburgh shows that turning to the courts may not be effective at helping abused women earn more money or even return to their previous level of earnings.
The paper, entitled “The Price of Protection: A Trajectory Analysis of Civil Remedies for Abuse and Women’s Earnings,” is the first to assess what happens to women’s earnings before, during, and after petitioning for a restraining order.
For the study, researchers analyzed the records of 3,923 women in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania who had petitioned for a PFA order between January 1996 and December 1999 and who had reported any earnings between January 1995 and December 2000.
They analyzed any changes in women’s earnings before and after they petitioned the courts for a restraining order against an abuser. They also looked at whether the women were on welfare prior to or after petitioning, and whether they secured just the initial PFA (usually only 10 days) or followed through and requested a hearing, a necessary step for a long-term restraining order.
Although, in theory, it seems that such an order would clear the way for women to return to work and increase their earnings, the researchers found overwhelming evidence that this period of petitioning is usually accompanied by serious financial instability, vulnerability, and hardship.
In fact, the researchers estimate that women lose anywhere between $312 and $1,018 dollars in the year after petitioning and further analysis indicates that they don’t recover these losses at a later period.
“Our study convincingly shows that women’s petitioning for a PFA does not come with either short- or long-term increases in earnings growth,” says Associate Professor of Sociology Melanie Hughes in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.
“We cannot offer women a restraining order as a tool to stop abuse and then walk away. We need to offer women other forms of support, especially economic ones, during this unstable time.”
The researchers say their study is just a first step toward unpacking the costs of women’s efforts to end abuse. They say the economic losses women experience when petitioning for a PFA is a call out to researchers, advocates, and policymakers to develop strategies to enhance women’s safety, solvency, and economic stability.
“The study is significant,” says professor of Sociology Lisa Brush, “because it definitively demonstrates the inadequacy of the two mechanisms–welfare and protective orders–that we expect women to use to escape from abusive relationships.
“Sometimes, a woman can’t afford to ‘just leave.’ Sometimes, a protective order is just a piece of paper. And sometimes, the turmoil of abuse and the petitioning process causes not just a short-term shock but a decline in earnings that takes years to make up.”
The study is published in the journal American Sociological Review.