First-of-its-kind research sheds some light onto the complicated social and financial costs that can plague domestic violence victims who attempt to take legal action against their abusers — evidence that the researchers hope outsiders will consider before asking the question, “Why doesn’t she just leave?”
In a new study entitled “The Price of Protection,” two sociologists at the University of Pittsburgh examined women’s earnings before and after they sought a civil restraining order — technically called a Protection From Abuse (PFA) — against a partner who posed a threat to them. This process involves petitioning a judge, and research suggests it can ultimately protect victims from further abuse.
But study authors Lisa Brush and Melanie Hughes found “overwhelming evidence” that the petition process can also be extremely difficult and costly for women. They estimated that women can lose anywhere between $312 and $1,018 dollars in the year after they seek a restraining order — money they typically don’t recoup.
In an email to ThinkProgress, the two researchers explained they wanted to examine how protective orders fit into the overall cycles of poverty and abuse. Current U.S. policies generally rest on the assumption that employment, and the subsequent financial stability it may bring, is the best way to help women break free from the abusive partners they may be economically dependent on. But Brush and Hughes suspected the reality may be more complicated.
“Protective orders are supposed to stop the abuse and give women leverage against abusers, which could put an end to the many ways abuse obstructs women’s work. But, we found it equally plausible that as women take steps to end abuse, their current and former husbands and boyfriends may step up abuse in ways that further damages women’s economic outlook,” the two researchers told ThinkProgress.
The study wasn’t able to pinpoint the exact cause of the decline in women’s earnings. But the lost wages could stem from a few different factors. Some women may need to take time off work to go to court, for instance. Other women may experience an escalation in the abuse after their partners realize they’re attempting to get the legal system involved, which could involve interfering at women’s workplaces.
Previous research has confirmed that work is actually a dangerous place for victims of domestic abuse. Among women who are killed on the job, the leading cause of death is homicide — frequently, murders perpetrated by intimate partners. Many abusers target women at work because they know that’s where they can find them; even if a woman has broken off the relationship and moved out of the house, she’ll still need to show up for her shift at her job.
Even if women aren’t physically harmed, they may be fired. Some women lose their jobs after their abusers start showing up to harass them, since their employers see that as a problematic disruption. The majority of U.S. states don’t have employment protections for victims of domestic violence, leaving them vulnerable to face economic consequences for abuse that’s out of their control. In a study of 32 women in abusive relationships, 91 percent ended up getting fired or resigning from their jobs over the course of two years because of their abuse.
That’s why Brush and Hughes suggest the policymakers invested in aiding victims of abuse need to go beyond the assumption that employment should always be the first line of defense. They propose finding a way to provide economic assistance to women trying to exit abusive relationships.
“It turns out that it can be very, very difficult from a woman to earn her way out of being trapped by abuse,” the researchers told ThinkProgress. “So one-size-fits-all policies are unlikely to help diverse women facing multiple obstacles to living safer, more economically secure lives.”
The new research adds to a larger conversation about the systems that need to be in place to adequately support victims of violence. Studies have shown that between 40 and 60 percent of offenders who are arrested on domestic violence charges end up re-offending within 30 months. Meanwhile, thanks to a 2005 Supreme Court decision, police officers are not liable if they fail to enforce protection orders. For women who are struggling to get by and can’t afford to disrupt their current employment situation, going to the courts to seek protection may simply not seem worth the trouble.