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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

UNC Study Reveals Need to Standardize Judicial Process Related to Domestic Violence Protective Orders

Approximately one in three women in the United States will experience physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner. Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is associated with long-term negative health consequences, creating a serious need to examine potential prevention strategies.


[Photo: Ms. Christine Agnew-Brune]

A domestic violence protective order (DVPO) is a legal intervention that prevents contact between two parties for up to 12 months. They have been shown to be effective secondary IPV prevention tools, but judges currently have a great deal of autonomy in granting or denying DVPO requests.

An article by four researchers from the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, “Domestic Violence Protective Orders: A Qualitative Examination of Judges’ Decision-Making Processes,” published online June 17 by the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, shared findings about the factors judges consider in their decisions regarding DVPOs.

Ms. Christine Agnew-Brune, doctoral candidate in the Department of Health Behavior at the Gillings School, is the study’s first author. Co-authors were Dr. Beth Moracco, research associate professor, Ms. Cara J. Person, doctoral candidate, and Dr. J. Michael Bowling, research associate professor, all in the health behavior department.

The aim of the study was to investigate how District Court judges decide whether to issue a DVPO. In-depth interviews with 20 North Carolina District Court judges addressed three research questions: What factors influence judges’ decisions to grant or deny a DVPO? What individual considerations potentially guide their decisions? What do they worry about when making such decisions?

Interview analyses revealed that, before issuing a DVPO, judges must feel that a specific violent incident reached a certain threshold. Judges often rely on personal assessments to determine whether plaintiffs’ accounts are credible and if plaintiffs have a justifiable need for a DVPO.

The interviews also revealed that the presence of children can create competing concerns, and may affect judgment outcomes. Judges reported that they must consider consequences related to DVPOs, such as how a child might be affected by losing access to one parent.

Given the range of factors that currently influence decision-making on this complex topic, the authors suggest that the DVPO process could benefit from a few changes. They suggest three approaches that would mitigate the impact of judge discretion on DVPO decisions, increase consistency in decisions across judges and reduce judges’ concerns about potential regret related to the impact of their rulings.

Recommendations include training to increase expertise about IPV among judges, so they can rely on knowledge about its dynamics and consequences instead of on personal perceptions. The researchers also propose implementing specialized domestic violence courts where appropriate, and modifying DVPO filing forms to reflect the chronic nature of IPV in a relationship rather than solely describing the most recent incident.

While judges clearly strive to avoid bias in their decision-making, the findings of this study suggest that changes to promote standardization and reduce intuition-based judgments will help individuals in need obtain DVPOs.

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