Before I had any interaction with the legal system, I assumed that restraining orders were what good people got against bad, dangerous people.
When I started working in the jail, I met a lot of people who were there for violating restraining orders. And some of them were essentially the case I imagined. But a lot of them were cases where a couple quarreled, the woman took out a restraining order against the man, they started talking again and got back together, and then they quarreled again. Now all the woman needs to do is call the police and say, “He’s at my apartment.” And the man does 6 months in jail. (This doesn’t just happen with couples—I’ve seen it with parents and adult children too—but primarily with couples.)
You need basically nothing to get a restraining order, or a harassment prevention order, against someone. You fill out some paperwork and then tell the judge you’re afraid of the person, and they generally approve it. The other person gets served with the order and there’s basically nothing they can do. They’re not allowed to communicate with you in any way forbidden by the order “even if the Plaintiff seems to request or allow contact.”
And that’s fine if you really want the person to stay away from you. The problem is when you change your mind, start seeing them again, and don’t lift the order. It means that one person has the power to send the other to jail on a whim at any time. The technically correct thing to do is reject all contact from someone who has an order against you, but a lot of people don’t have the willpower to do this with the mother of their child.
My clients mostly live in communities where it’s understood that these orders are not consistently used, and so they don’t think of them as a firm “no.” One client did something that frightened his girlfriend, who broke up with him and got a restraining order. He asked his church group how he should handle the situation, and a woman there advised him to bring his ex-girlfriend flowers. When he did this, the ex-girlfriend had him arrested. He did jail time essentially because of a cultural misunderstanding about whether a restraining order really means “no.”
For it to work, it has to always mean “no.” If I get a restraining order against you, but then I start texting you and we meet up to talk things over, and if things go sour again and I call the cops, we should both get arrested. That’s the only way I can see to make the orders actually meaningful.