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Protecting Survivors from Violent Partners and Their Guns
Maury Danielle studied the flyer about a missing woman that a friend had shared on Facebook. Something about it was wrong, she thought.
The flyer showed the woman smiling, with her husband and children. The husband had created the flyer and was calling for help finding his wife. But he gave no context about why his wife had disappeared, only that she was missing.
Danielle, a life coach for survivors of domestic violence, remembered the times she, too, had gone “missing” from her now-ex-husband. She’d been trying to escape his abuse. Once she’d packed her young son and daughter into her car and driven nearly 400 miles from Alameda County, California, to Los Angeles without telling him. He’d threatened to kill himself or her with a gun if she left, but she had to try to get to safety. Could the woman in the flyer be trying to escape a similar danger?
“It was a gut feeling,” Danielle said. “I guess as a survivor you just know the warning signs.”
Interrupting Cycles of Harm, Inside and Outside Prison WallsA growing number of programs are working to interrupt cycles of trauma and harm with currently and formerly incarcerated individuals. Beyond Violence uses curriculum co-designed by incarcerated women, and uses peer co-facilitation to address the aggression and violence women have experienced personally, as well as perpetrated.The curriculum highlights the impact of individuals’ communities, relationships, and social structures, and improves mental health and facilitates long-term healing.Read Full Story
Partially due to the culture of guns in the United States, and their widespread availability, domestic violence is often linked to firearm use or the threat of it. Survivors speak about partners who have guns and threaten to use them. In fact, about 4.5 million U.S. women have been threatened with a gun by an intimate partner, and nearly 1 million have been shot or shot at during a domestic violence incident. When a person acting abusively has access to a firearm, they are five times more likely to kill their partner, researchers have found.
California has some of the strictest laws in the country aimed at protecting survivors from this danger. Yet enforcement of these laws has often failed to measure up. A new law that took effect last year aims to make it harder for people who cause harm to skirt gun restrictions imposed under domestic violence restraining orders, and strengthens enforcement procedures required of family-court judges and the police.
The threat affects women of all backgrounds but is particularly acute for survivors of color, according to data from a 2021 data report by California’s attorney general. (More than 40% of women and a quarter of men experience domestic violence during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) In particular, Black women are twice as likely to be shot and killed by an intimate partner compared to white women. These disparities reflect broader trends in intimate partner abuse and gun violence in communities of color, fueled by systemic inequities.
“It’s the most comprehensive firearms-relinquishment-implementation law in the country,” said Julia Weber, director of the National Center on Gun Violence in Relationships at the St. Paul, Minnesota-based Battered Women’s Justice Project, a national legal resource for gender-based violence. Weber previously worked at the Giffords Law Center, where she helped draft the law, originally called Senate Bill 320.
Even so, advocates for domestic violence survivors say additional work is needed to protect survivors, particularly in a nation awash in guns, where loopholes for obtaining guns abound, and at a time when access to unlicensed “ghost” guns is becoming more prevalent. In this environment, family-court judges need to be knowledgeable about the dynamics of domestic violence and carefully weigh the safety of survivors when establishing restraining-order provisions that could still result in contact with the person who caused them harm—such as through child-custody arrangements—advocates say. Additionally, advocates call for better coordination between family courts and law enforcement to implement civil restraining orders. And there should be easier mechanisms to get civil restraining orders served by police (who are authorized to remove guns). In general, advocates call for a more effective and standardized response from law enforcement when responding to restraining-order violations, particularly if the violations involve guns.
Domestic violence restraining orders are a strong tool to help protect survivors from the threat of guns and other types of intimate-partner abuse, those who work in the field say. Yet given the gaps in gun regulations and enforcement, they cannot be regarded as the sole solution. Survivors still need to create safety plans for themselves and any other family members impacted by the abuse, and seek support from local domestic violence organizations.
An Unexpected Phone Call
Danielle’s hunch about the missing woman was right. Several months after she saw the flyer, Danielle got a call from a mutual friend who knew the woman. She’d been located in another state after running away from her husband, who allegedly threatened to kill her with a gun. Could Danielle provide the woman with life coaching? her friend asked.
For the next six months, Danielle talked with the woman regularly over the phone and via video chat. She used her own experiences with domestic violence, along with training and research, to help her new client understand the trauma she had suffered, rebuild her self-esteem, and weather ongoing threats of violence and manipulation from her ex. She also connected the woman to resources in her community to support her, including legal assistance to obtain a domestic violence restraining order, or DVRO.
“I had already walked that road before her,” says Danielle. “I felt like I was the one called to help her.”
A DVRO is a civil court order designed to protect survivors of abuse, and, in some cases, their children and others from the person who is causing harm. The order can include a variety of elements, such as stipulations that the subject move out of the survivor’s home, child-custody or visitation arrangements, and prohibitions on going near the survivor’s workplace or school, or their child’s daycare. DVROs also ban the subject of the order from buying or possessing firearms or ammunition. This makes them a primary tool for diffusing the threat of guns in domestic violence situations.
DVRO gun prohibitions are powerful on paper. But the orders rely on the accused person to fully declare and relinquish all firearms in their possession to law enforcement or a licensed gun dealer, then submit proof to the court. Follow-up from court officials and law enforcement has long been spotty, reports show. Competing priorities, stretched resources, disjointed enforcement systems, and, in some cases, lack of awareness among judicial or police officials about domestic violence dynamics and the serious threat guns pose to survivors, can undermine these orders’ effectiveness, advocates say.
“Our system on paper is great. In practice it has some gaps,” says Allison Kephart, chief legal and compliance officer at WEAVE (When Everyone Acts Violence Ends), a Sacramento-based support center for domestic violence survivors. “We have pretty good policy on restricting access to firearms, but we rely on disjointed and siloed systems to actually ensure that firearms get relinquished when somebody is prohibited, and that their ability to access firearms in the future while they remain prohibited is limited.”
Advocates like Kephart hope that Senate Bill 320, which took effect in January 2022, will fix some of these problems. The law requires that, when law enforcement officials serve DVRO orders, they ask for and remove firearms from the restrained person. It also requires family courts to provide clear information to the restrained person on how to comply with the law, and to review DVRO case files or hold a follow-up hearing to ensure the person promptly submits proof that they’ve relinquished their firearms and ammunition. If the person hasn’t complied, the courts must notify law enforcement immediately, which must in turn “take all actions necessary” to obtain guns in that person’s possession.
Weber says she was particularly heartened that the California legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom allocated $40 million in the state budget last year to help courts and law enforcement improve their handling of firearms relinquishment in civil cases, including domestic violence orders. Weber has also trained over 2,000 judges, lawyers, court staff, community members, and advocates on Senate Bill 320 since it took effect.
Because the law is relatively new, there isn’t data yet to show what its effects are, and it will likely take some time for the judicial system to fully implement the changes, Weber says. However, she and other advocates say they have heard directly from people in the judicial and domestic violence advocacy system that the law is already making a difference.
“It’s making a real impact,” said Krista Colón, senior director of public policy strategies at the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. “It provides much more clarity for the courts and really strengthens the expectations for response and follow-up.”
The threat of guns in domestic violence situations is common. About 75% of survivors that seek help from WEAVE’s legal team believe that the person causing them harm has or could get access to a firearm, Kephart says. Most apply for a DVRO. These orders do often work to diffuse the threat of violence and help keep the survivor safe, but there are challenges with the system that need to be addressed, she adds.
One is that survivors must themselves ask law enforcement to serve the order to the person causing harm. That can be tricky, because sometimes only the sheriff’s department will take on this task, which could require the survivor to travel or wrestle with a clunky online system, and officials may not issue the order in a timely matter, Kephart says. Alternatively, survivors can ask someone they know or hire a professional to serve the order, but these individuals cannot ask the restrained person to hand over their weapons.
Another challenge is that judges have a lot of discretion over how they craft DVROs. This can be a good thing if the judge uses the flexibility to write comprehensive protections. But some judges don’t fully consider how a person causing harm could find ways to continue harassing the victim, especially through joint-child-custody or visitation arrangements, Kephart says. Another bill pending in the legislature, Senate Bill 599 (Caballero), would require courts to consider requiring virtual visitation if they determine that in-person visitation could pose a threat to the survivor’s safety. Weber says this should reduce the risk of a crime such as last year’s shooting in Sacramento of a chaperone and three children by the children’s father, who had been subject to a domestic violence restraining order.
Danielle pursued a DVRO several times during her struggle to leave her husband. But she had difficulty collecting documentation, filling out the paperwork, and waiting for a court hearing, all while under the threat of harassment and violence.
“It was exhausting,” she says. “This was years of trying to leave this person, years of documentation, taking notes, years of advocating for myself. A lot of victims, quite frankly, don’t have the resources or the energy.”
Now Danielle helps her clients—like the one who ran away from her husband—prepare for and weather the challenges of pursuing legal remedies. Although it can be a struggle to obtain one, restraining orders can bring great relief, she says. In her case, the biggest help was that she obtained full custody of her young son, with no visitation rights. Her older daughter was named as protected in addition to herself, and her ex-husband was ordered to stay away from the family. Although it didn’t end her worrying completely, the order did give her space to breathe and begin the healing process, she says.
“It gave me a chance to exhale and look into what my next steps were without having that constant harassment and emotional strain,” she says.
Even so, Danielle agrees that there needs to be better enforcement of DVROs. But, ultimately, a DVRO or any legal order cannot be relied on as the sole strategy for protecting a survivor of domestic violence from guns or other threats from the person causing harm, Kephart says. Advocates at WEAVE also help survivors develop safety plans, which can include installing cameras outside their homes and changing the locks, changing and unlisting their phone numbers, and making sure their children’s school or daycare provider knows who is allowed to pick up their children.
DVROs are “not a magic wand, they can’t fix everything,” Kephart says. “At the end of the day they’re just a piece of paper.”
Today, Danielle is proud to be moving on with her life and to be helping other survivors move on with theirs. In addition to her life-coaching business, she has written a book about her experiences and started a nonprofit organization that offers workshops on topics related to domestic violence. She also collaborated with the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence on a newly released toolkit for survivors and advocates that explains the civil legal options available to victims of abuse, including DVROs.
As for the woman Danielle supported, who also escaped a violent relationship, she is now “a completely different person,” Danielle says. She divorced her ex-husband, purchased her own home, obtained a new job, and reunited with one of her children.
To other survivors of domestic violence, Danielle says it’s important to seek help and to know you are not alone: You do not have to stay in a situation that is not healthy for you and your children.
Although leaving an abusive relationship can be challenging, Danielle is encouraging: “Choose to focus on the light, and stay present with what we can control—then each day you will become stronger and more empowered,” she says. “One day, you will look back and say, ‘I made it.’”
The California Partnership to End Domestic Violence recently launched this online toolkit to help survivors and advocates make decisions about how best to proceed in domestic violence situations, especially when guns are an issue: https://endinggv.org.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for support and referrals, or text “START” to 88788. You can also find contact information for your local domestic violence program using this online tool.
For Native Americans and Alaska Natives, the Stronghearts Native Helpline at 1-844-7NATIVE (762-8483) also provides 24/7 confidential and culturally appropriate support and advocacy for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. A chat option is available through their website.
This story was produced by the California Health Report.
Claudia Boyd-Barrett is a longtime journalist based in southern California. She writes on topics related to health care, social justice, and maternal and child well-being. Her investigative stories on access to mental health care have resulted in legislative and policy changes.