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Spousal Abuse: Do Restraining Orders Help?

March 23, 1989|DANA PARSONS | Times Staff Writer

In the volatile, real-life world of family violence, there are happy endings and sad endings after one spouse gets a restraining order against the other.

Scott McGuire credits his wife's decision to get an order against him with awakening him to the seriousness of his plight. He did not violate the order that was granted last year, and he and his wife say they believe their marriage now is back on track.

Sandra Melendez was not so lucky. Last month, she got a restraining order against her husband, Carlos. The order forbade him to come near her residence or the motel where she worked.

But on Feb. 13, only 10 days after the order was made final, Carlos Melendez, armed with a revolver, went to the motel near Anaheim Stadium where his wife was a night desk clerk, engaged her in a brief argument and then fatally shot her. He then shot himself to death, leaving three orphaned children.

The news was particularly devastating to a group of employees in the county courthouse who work for the private, nonprofit Community Services Program. They help women fill out the cumbersome forms for restraining orders and had worked with Sandra Melendez.

"Anytime you've had contact with someone where something tragic happened, you're going to feel it a bit more even if it's not someone you're personally acquainted with," said Maxine Rutkowski, a supervisor in the Domestic Violence Assistance Program of the Community Services Program.

"When you know they've come into the office, you kind of feel, 'Was there something more we could have done?' Even when you think back and think you had done everything possible, you wonder if maybe there wasn't something more you could have done. You just don't know."

For those like Carlos Melendez who are intent on mayhem, restraining orders are not worth the paper they're printed on. But the overwhelming consensus of people who work in the domestic violence field is that restraining orders are effective.

"We still live in a society where most people are law-abiding," said Jan Shaw, director of mediation and investigative services for the Orange County Superior Court. "It's unfortunate that we don't live in a society where everyone is. But the fact that the court has intervened in the affairs of a family seems to make the batterer realize that this isn't something society accepts or condones."

While domestic violence is a felony, violating a restraining order is a misdemeanor. Since that may mean little or no jail time, some experts are lukewarm about the impact of such an order.

"I have mixed feelings about the orders," said Mary Walton, executive director of the Interval House shelter in west Orange County. "It gives the woman a sense that she's able to do something to protect herself. There was a time when it was the only thing she could do. Until there is a consistent first response and arrest for family violence, then a restraining order is valuable as the next best thing we have. But so far in our society, and that filters down to our county, the notion of arrest being the first response has not caught on."

Figures provided by the Orange County Commission on the Status of Women support her theory. Of more than 10,000 domestic violence calls reported by police departments in 1987, only 209 resulted in arrests.

Police departments over the years have made no secret of their dislike for handling domestic violence calls. "You can take a Caspar Milquetoast and given stimulus about family, money, children--it brings out the worst in people," said Orange Police Sgt. Timm Browne. "I've been doing this job for 18 years and from the day I started, this has been the biggest problem--you just don't like to handle family fights, because everybody's got their emotions up front. There are no fuses, just buttons."

Complicating matters for police are the combatants themselves. Many times, police will be called to a family fight, only to have the abused spouse suddenly join forces with the other after officers attempt to arrest or subdue the abuser.

That same pattern can interfere with the intent of the restraining orders. "The thing you have to understand about family violence is that a woman will separate six or seven times before she finally separates from him for the final time," according to Jan Shaw. "So what will happen is, she'll come in and obtain the restraining order, which is good for 3 years, and during that time there will be all these reconciliations and it ends up defeating the original intent of the order."

Because restraining orders require filling out a lot of paper work and documenting past cases of abuse, some people need help with the forms. Since 1982, the Victim Assistance Center in the county courthouse has provided that kind of assistance. In the most recent full year of record-keeping, more than 2,300 people have sought help for family violence situations.

While murderous assaults such as that of Carlos Melendez make people wary of the value of restraining orders, experts say that is a misleading impression.

"Like all of us, abusers come from all walks of life, all educational levels, all philosophies," said Barbara Clippinger, program director at the Women's Transitional Living Center shelter in north Orange County.

"Some are very law-abiding citizens who have a cultural or social or family belief system that says they have the right to beat their wife, but they still follow the other rules of society, with that exception. Most of the abusers would be looked at by their neighbors as regular guys, pleasant people to be with, socially acceptable. Their rage is usually kept within the confines of the home."

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