By Linda Carroll

(Reuters Health) – Whether filing for a civil protection order will be an option for U.S. teens fearing intimate partner violence depends on where they live, a new study suggests.

Researchers who looked at legal codes in 50 states and the District of Columbia found wide variation by state when it came to the availability of civil protective orders (CPO) for teens, they report in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Surveys have found that intimate partner violence is common among teens, the researchers say, noting that some 60% of those who dated within the past year had experienced some form of intimate partner violence, whether physical, sexual or psychological.

“There are limitations in the current laws around access to protection orders for adolescents,” said study leader Avanti Adhia, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center at the University of Washington, in Seattle. “And there are ways the laws can be improved to make sure adolescents have meaningful access to these kinds of legal protections.”

To take a closer look at what was available to teens fearing intimate partner violence, Adhia and her colleagues combed through a large legal database as well as public documents made available by state and local court systems. They systematically assessed statutes across all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia to evaluate CPO laws in terms of their effect on adolescent access to protection from abusive relationships.

The researchers found significant variation by state. A total of 48 states explicitly allowed minors to obtain CPOs, but only 14 explicitly allowed minors to file for the CPO on their own behalf. Most states, 44, recognized dating relationships as qualifying for a CPO.

A CPO could be issued for physical violence in all states plus the District of Columbia, for sexual violence in 46 states, for threats of physical or sexual violence in 47 states, for stalking in 44 states and for psychological/emotional violence in 28 states. In 22 states, an individual subject to a CPO is prohibited from possessing firearms and is required to surrender firearms they already have.

Ultimately, Adhia said, the hope would be to intervene with adolescents before anyone needs a CPO.

“Although I think it can be useful for some people, when you’re thinking about a CPO it already feels late in the game,” she said. “We need to be thinking about prevention of intimate partner violence. We need to be teaching children and adolescents about healthy relationships in schools.”

The new study highlights the importance of providing protections for young people, said Dr. Elizabeth Miller, director of the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

“Policies that aim to limit the access to firearms and make other safety strategies such as protection orders available to young people are a critical part of comprehensive violence protection,” Miller said in an email. “Adolescent relationship abuse is far too prevalent to dismiss the vital importance of such policies.”

The new study is “really important,” said Pamela Matson, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Medicine, in Baltimore.

“It outlines the additional obstacles adolescents face in terms of intimate partner violence, such as not being able to file for CPOs on their own,” Matson said. “While in most states an adolescent can be granted a CPO, the number in which they are allowed to file on their own is shockingly low.”

While CPOs don’t guarantee safety, there is some evidence showing that they can be effective in preventing physical abuse, Matson, said. “They also provide some mental health benefits. It’s a relief to be able to take some action and have legal backing.”

Filing for a CPO can also help victims of intimate partner violence take back some autonomy, Matson said. “When action is taken, it tells them that the law agrees that they should not be subject to this type of behavior.”

SOURCE: Journal of Adolescent Health, online January 19, 2020.