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At long last, restraining orders for survivors

I don’t know if you felt it, but on Tuesday afternoon, February 9th, Massachusetts became a little safer for survivors of sexual violence and stalking. On that day, Governor Patrick signed into law S. 2212, “An Act Relative to Harassment Prevention Orders,” which became M.G.L. Chapter 258E.

Up until last week, survivors of sexual violence, stalking, and harassment were able to petition for a criminally enforceable protection order only if the perpetrator of the abuse was a family member, roommate, current or former spouse, or a person with whom the victim has or had a “substantial dating relationship.” As a result, many victims were left without any protection under the old restraining order frameworks.

The fight to pass this restraining order bill in Massachusetts went on for nearly a decade. During that time, the Commonwealth lagged behind 38 other states with stalking/harassment civil protection orders and 17 states with sexual assault civil protection orders.

The remarkable thing about that loophole was that, while it addressed many of the needs of domestic violence survivors, it fundamentally ignored the reality of many sexual violence and stalking survivors. That is, it was based on the premise that strangers perpetrate most acts of sexual violence and stalking. While the old framework offered protection to those who might have been victimized by a family member or a current or former partner, the underlying assumption was that those who were victimized by someone who was a stranger would not require a protection order, since they had never seen them before and likely wouldn’t again. 

And that assumption left vulnerable not only those who were victimized by strangers, but also by the innumerable survivors assaulted and harassed or stalked by friends, acquaintances, classmates, teammates, coworkers, neighbors…the constellation of people with whom we live our daily lives.

There were many, many individuals who labored on various forms of this bill over the last decade, in the legislature, in law enforcement and the DAs offices, and in victim advocacy. Not surprisingly, though, one of the most powerful things to hear was the testimony in committee hearings of survivors and loved ones of survivors who needed protection and needed safety, but were not able to access it.

Stephanie Decandia, BARCC’s Manager of System Advocacy and Policy Development, made an important point in her remarks at the bill signing last week: “survivors are given the opportunity to fully engage with their lives again.” Too often, as a culture, we put the burden on survivors of making adjustments to their lives—-moving, leaving their school or jobs, separating from their family or their social groups. In that way, we allow the actions of perpetrators to have aftershocks far beyond the original threats or assaults, and that is unacceptable.

Stephanie rightly pointed out that “this legislation sends a message to all sexual assault and stalking survivors that they are heard, they are entitled to live their life without fear, and they do deserve our protection.” At the same time, it makes a broader point that harassment, threats, and further violence will not be tolerated, and that the larger community is taking responsibility for the safety of its members when they’re vulnerable.

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Posted by Meg

Meg formerly served BARCC as its coordinator of Community Education and Outreach. Prior to that, she was involved with various aspects of sexual violence prevention, education, and response at Northeastern University and Williams College. Her work focuses on mobilizing communities to prevent sexual violence.


  1. There are a couple of ways you can go about this (they are not exslucive so feel free to do them all):Compile a petition Clearly identify what law you would like removed and explain why on. Now with this explanation, gather signatures. Once you have collected enough signatures, show the petition to one of your representatives in congress (the representative from you district or one of your senators) to raise awareness of the issue in Congress.Form a special interest group Gather a group of people concerned with this law and go to Washington to lobby support for your cause.Start a campaign Get together a group of people who will be dedicated to raising awareness of your cause among other people.Find existing group For any special interest there is a good chance there already exists a group, try to find them. If you can not find an existing group, you can always start your own.The point of all these methods is to get the issue to Congress as it would be their job to pass or repeal the necessary laws. As Congress has a lot of issues to decide upon, you will need to gather enough support so that they will consider doing something about it. The idea behind tapping your local Congressman is that they will be the most likely to get your item on the agenda as a Congressman with happy constituants gets reelected.

  2. In fact, Steve, since 258E carries with it the power of arrest, those who insist on violating the restraining order face jail time.

    I would contend that if citizens are truly good and law abiding, they wouldn't have victims, and nor would they be doing things that qualify as harassment, stalking, or assault under the terms of the restraining order.

  3. Are you kidding me? This law is completely wrong and you have any clue how it is being frivalously misused by crazy women against law biding citizens. This law will do nothing to stop anyone from committing further crimes against their victims, it just wont. Meanwhile, good men like myself are having this law used against them.

  4. I honestly couldn't understand why such a common sense law wasn't getting passed in MA until reading this perspective. I think you are absolutely right that the legislature was operating under the same false assumptions as the rest of society when it comes to sexual violence- that it is only perpetrated by strangers so a restraining order wouldn't have helped which is absolutely not the case 75% of the time. This bill is such a huge step in the right direction and I am thankful to everyone that worked so hard to get it passed!

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