Freedom from Violence: Using the Stages of Change Model to Realize the Promise of Civil Protection Orders


This Article is the first legal scholarship to analyze domestic violence civil protection orders and response systems using the Stages of Change Model from the field of psychology. The Stages of Change Model, which describes how domestic violence survivors end relationship violence, includes five stages: (1) pre-contemplation, (2) contemplation, (3) preparation, (4) action, and (5) maintenance. According to the model, ending intimate partner violence is an iterative and complex process, and survivors typically revisit earlier stages as they progress toward maintaining freedom from violence. The model has been validated by numerous studies and is widely accepted in the psychology community. As a result, it is a powerful tool for evaluating the legal treatment of domestic violence.

A heightened focus on the civil protection order remedy is warranted because of its potential to increase the domestic violence survivor’s safety and autonomy, unlike recent mandatory criminal policies that give control over arrest and prosecution decisions to the state without regard to a survivor’s belief about how the action will affect her safety. The civil protection order is also the remedy that survivors most often choose to address the violence. An exploration of the individual stages in the Stages of Change Model, however, reveals deficiencies in the protection order remedy and suggests procedural rule reforms, substantive law changes, and improvements to legal and advocacy interventions. For example, while current procedural rules and judicial practices penalize petitioners for seeking the court’s assistance multiple times, I propose rule changes that would allow petitioners to access the legal system designed to protect them. The Article also offers economic and safety justifications for advocacy support across the stages in response to the current system’s failure to address survivors’ safety planning needs in the preparation stage and the emotional and tangible resources they need to sustain an end to violence in the maintenance stage. Among other legal reforms, I identify substantive law changes necessary to the maintenance stage, such as making monetary relief statutorily available in protection orders to enable low-income or economically dependent survivors to end violent relationships. The advancements inspired by using the lens of the Stages of Change Model would enable civil protection orders to better respond to survivors’ actual experiences and needs and encourage survivors’ progression through the stages to achieve freedom from violence.

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