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Professor Mary Kernic receives NIJ grant to study domestic violence protective orders

UW EPI NEWS | June 25, 2019
4 minutes to read

Dr. Mary Kernic

The National Institute of Justice has awarded a four-year grant for more than one million dollars to Mary Kernic to study a potentially widespread national trend in court approaches to issuing temporary and full civil domestic violence protective orders over the last 20 years and its potential impact on repeated intimate partner violence (IPV) and related health outcomes.

IPV can take the form of stalking, physical violence, psychological harm, economic abuse, or sexual violence. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in four women and one in seven men report severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. 

Of these cases, an estimated 20 percent of IPV victims will file for a civil domestic violence protection order (DVPO), which provides short-term temporary or long-term court protection of the victim from the abuser. Previous studies have found protective orders effective at reducing future harm to the victim.

Kernic, a research associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health, will use this grant to examine whether courts have trended toward increased reissuances of multiple temporary orders, and a lower likelihood of issuing full orders in cases filed between 1997 and 2016 in King County, Washington. Second, she and her team will look at whether approaches by the courts to delay or deny full order protection are associated with increased risk of additional harm from the partner, visiting the emergency department, being hospitalized, and death.

Courts began to issue civil domestic violence protection orders in the 1990s. There are typically two steps in these proceedings. The first is the issuance of a temporary order generally for two weeks, and during which the alleged abuser is served and given the option to appear at the full hearing. At the full hearing, both parties are given a chance to provide their case to a judge, and a decision is made on whether to issue the full order, what protections will be included, and the duration of protection.

“Intimate partner violence is a tremendously important public health issue with wide-ranging and broad physical and mental health consequences experienced by victims and child witnesses,” Kernic said. “There is a long and growing list of adverse health effects on victims, such as physical injuries, chronic pain, traumatic brain injury, gastrointestinal disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, and substance abuse. The effects on children include internalizing and externalizing problems, academic difficulties, post-traumatic stress symptoms, and high concurrent risk of child abuse, among many others.”

Kernic’s preliminary research revealed DVPO cases throughout the nation that have deferred decisions on full orders pending the resolution of criminal (involving the alleged abuser) or family law cases, such as a divorce or child custody case. Most alarming to Kernic, courts have begun to ask for evidence of the IPV crime, which goes beyond the standard required in civil cases.

“Private crimes like domestic violence often go unreported to the police,” Kernic said. “Asking for formal documentation of an IPV history, such as a police report or medical record attributing IPV as a cause of injury, is a burden that many victims cannot fulfill. A civil protection order is intended as a safety mechanism for a highly vulnerable population, victims of a largely private crime. Making it more difficult for victims to acquire that protection, particularly using standards that are not legally required, is egregious.”

For Kernic, who has been performing research at the intersection of law and public health for more than 20 years, issues of justice loom large on her mind.

“How we approach justice, who we choose to protect and how we dispense justice, in general, has enormous repercussions on safety and health, particularly among those who are marginalized.”