Myths & Facts About Restraining Orders


While we hope no one reading this blog will ever need to file a court order for protection,  everyone has the right to know this option is available. Here’s a quick overview of the process, but keep in mind that this is not intended as legal advice. Please speak to an attorney or a victim witness advocate (employed by the local district attorney’s office) if you would like clarification on the law.

image of gavel and scales

What is a restraining order (RO)?

The purpose of the abuse prevention law (Chapter 209A) is to provide individuals with a layer of protection from their abusers. It allows survivors to apply for a court order, which is sometimes called a 209A order, an abuse prevention order, a restraining order, or a protective order. We often refer to it as an RO.

A full RO means the abuser must always stay at least 100 yards (the size of a football field) away from the person who filed the RO. Away from home, work, school, grocery store - from wherever the survivor may be. The RO might even require the abuser to stay away from the filer’s children.

Myth: It’s hard to get a restraining order.

Fact: It’s easier to get a restraining order than people think.

There are a couple of different ways to get a restraining order. An attorney is not required, although everyone is always welcome to have one.

  • Go directly to the courthouse that serves the city/town where the person filing lives during regular courthouse hours. Just walk right in. Every courthouse has a restraining order department. They might run those departments differently, but they’re there.
  • Tell the police at the scene. An emergency restraining order can be filed immediately after an incident happens, even if it’s not during regular court hours. If the police respond to the incident, they will ask the survivor if they want to file for a RO right away. Judges are on call for this purpose.
  • Apply online before going to the courthouse. The RO application is available in multiple languages both in the courthouse and online. Tip: it helps speed up the process to fill out the forms online, print them out, and bring them to the court already completed.

There should always be a victim witness advocate at the courthouse to explain the process and walk filers through it, answering any questions. They will stand with the person filing in front of the judge. The courthouse clerk's office staff can direct people to a victim witness advocate.

Sometimes survivors would like emotional support or to talk through the filing process. Survivors are always welcome to call our hotline at 1-800-899-4000 to learn more about RO’s or to request one of our REACH advocates (trauma-informed, domestic abuse-trained REACH staff) to go with the filer to the court or help apply online. REACH advocates also help survivors develop safety plans.

Myth: Once the judge approves the RO, the abuser must stay away immediately.

Fact: RO’s are NOT in effect until the abuser is notified. 

An abuser will not know there is a restraining order against them until the police serve them the paperwork. That could happen that same day or might not happen for several days. The abuser is not breaking the law if they go near an individual after the RO is filed but before the abuser is served.

Myth: Survivors can’t have a restraining order while living with their abuser.

Fact: Restraining orders can be modified to allow survivors to continue living with the abuser.

Restraining orders can be updated or modified on a case-by-case basis. The judge will want to know the reasoning for the modification before granting the change, but it’s fairly common to modify it.

Survivors may want to find a way to make the relationship work. There may be financial issues or children involved. RO’s can be modified to allow the abuser to live with the filer, but not to abuse them. They will be breaking the law if they abuse - in any way - the person who filed for an RO.

RO’s can also be modified to order the abuser to turn over all keys to their shared residence. If there is a detail specific to a person’s situation that they think should be included, go ahead and ask for it.

Myth: Undocumented immigrants cannot file for a restraining order.

Fact: Immigrants - undocumented or not - have the right to a restraining order like anyone else.

Whether or not a person is undocumented, they have every right to not be abused. Anyone needing a restraining order can apply and possibly be granted one. Keep in mind there may be a risk, and REACH is available to help survivors weigh their options.

For those who do not speak English, ask the court for an interpreter. Here’s where things can get complicated. Family, friends, or REACH advocates cannot act as interpreters in court. A trained, court-appointed interpreter understands the legal system and can make sure the person they are assigned to can understand what is happening. Non-English speakers have a right to a court-appointed interpreter or to ask the court to use Language Line, which is a service of remote interpreters accessible through something like an iPad.

Myth: Everyone who needs one should file for a restraining order.

Fact: It’s okay for a survivor to choose not to file. It’s their choice.

There are a variety of reasons that a survivor might have against filing a restraining order. Survivors are the best experts of their situations, and it is their right to choose how they want to move forward.

What happens if my abuser ignores the court order?

A restraining order is a civil matter. If the RO is violated, it becomes a criminal offense. No matter how small the violation is, the abuser can be arrested for violating the restraining order.

It is important for survivors with RO’s to document every violation: date/time/where it happened/what happened. If the abuser sends you a text message, that’s a violation (depending on any modifications you may have made to the order.) No contact is no contact.

Although each violation is arrestable, an arrest may not happen in each case. Try to report the violations as soon as they happen or at least on the same day. One reason why it is so important to document everything is because violations can and do escalate. It’s easier for the police to keep an eye on that and protect you if they know it’s happening.

There can be a heightened risk of abuse during the RO process.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply for a restraining order. RO’s are often a valuable deterrent to violence, and sometimes they are not. Everyone’s situation is different. That’s why it is so important to involve a domestic violence agency like REACH as early as possible. REACH advocates are specifically trained to work with survivors on personalized safety plans that make sense for each survivor’s unique situation. Call us 24/7 on the REACH domestic violence hotline at 1-800-899-4000 to learn more.

One of the best tools in preventing domestic violence is staying informed. We encourage everyone to understand their individual rights and what to do in case of domestic abuse or violence. Our REACH Beyond Domestic Violence website is a good resource. We also recommend the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

In addition to our local REACH hotline, anyone experiencing, in fear of experiencing, or concerned about someone who may be experiencing domestic abuse can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).

If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.