Mary Schaffer spent years doing all she could to keep herself and her children safe from her aggressive ex-husband, and was able to secure a protection order against him.
Despite all her careful planning, on Aug. 8, 2020, Schaffer was found shot to death inside a rental car outside her ex-husband’s Browne’s Addition home, where she had been waiting to pick up their two children.
Now her ex, Nathan Beal, is accused of killing her.
Schaffer was among the nearly 3 in 10 women and 1 in 10 men who have experienced some form of sexual assault, stalking or violence at the hands of an intimate partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. In Spokane, the regional domestic violence team interacts with more than 60 victims of domestic violence a week, according to the Spokane Police Department.
Just 56% of domestic violence is reported to law enforcement, according to a Department of Justice study.
Even when reported, police sometimes are unable to arrest the alleged perpetrators. Protection orders are often one of the first steps in the criminal justice system for survivors of domestic violence to have some protection. The process to apply for one is lengthy and bureaucratic, but that is set to change next summer due to a bill that recently passed in the Washington Legislature.
But as Schaffer’s case illustrates, protection orders don’t always prevent violent crime.
In early 2017, Schaffer and Beal were separated, and Schaffer had him barred from the family’s home because his behavior was becoming increasingly violent.
On a Thursday evening in May, Beal came to the home and took their 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. Police found Beal and the kids in front of a nearby elementary school and, according to court documents, Beal immediately became aggressive.
Beal’s daughter was crying and telling her father she didn’t want to go with him, according to court records. At one point, Beal put his hand around her neck, choking her, and an officer attempted to get Beal to release the child, according to the officer on scene.
Eventually, Beal assaulted the police officer and soon was arrested with the help of two nearby firefighters.
He was later convicted of multiple crimes stemming from the incident. Shortly after, Schaffer petitioned for a protection order for her and her children, checking “Yes” when asked if she had been sexually assaulted, harassed, stalked and threatened with violence by Beal. The order was granted and the estranged parents began work on a parenting plan, according to court records.
That fall, Beal attempted to take out a protection order against his estranged wife’s new boyfriend, Justin Sharp, saying he had been harassed, stalked and threatened with violence. That order was denied by a judge.
The saga continued for years, with Schaffer in fear every time she had to interact with her ex-husband over the children, according to her family in court documents. Beal had openly threatened to kill Schaffer multiple times, family members told police. Her brother told officers that Beal had said he had a bullet for Schaffer’s head and one for Sharp’s as well.
From calling the police multiple times to filing for a protection order, to telling friends and family where she was, Schaffer did the best she could to protect herself, but it was not enough.
Beal was arrested and charged with her murder and is suspected of killing a homeless man months prior for “practice,” according to prosecutors.
Schaffer was one of four people killed in a domestic violence situation last year in Spokane. Just last month, Kassie Dewey was stabbed to death and her 5-year-old daughter was brutally assaulted in her North Spokane home, likely by her ex-boyfriend, who has been charged with her murder.
Domestic violence victims are often scared to report to police what’s happening , and when they do, their abusers often don’t stay in jail for long. A protection order can make it easier for officer to arrest the perpetrator.
“It gives the officers the ability to actually make a physical arrest for something that otherwise would not be criminal behavior,” said Sgt. Jordan Ferguson, from the Domestic Violence Unit at the Spokane Police Department. “Once the order is in place and there’s no contact, showing up outside of work … all these other things that would be near impossible to prove, now it’s simplified with the violation of an order.”
But protection orders don’t work unless the perpetrators respect them or the victim has evidence it’s being violated, plus the process to apply for an order can be confusing and frustrating.
Filing for a protection order
There are six types of protection orders, from anti-harassment to domestic violence to stalking. A domestic violence protection order can be taken out against anyone the petitioner has had an intimate relationship with, has lived with or is related to, either by marriage or blood.
Currently, people petitioning for a protection order select what type of order they believe they need, then fill out a packet of forms for that order, detailing their abuser’s behavior.
A bill passed in the 2021 legislative session makes sweeping changes to the protection order petitioning process. Most notably, instead of filling out different forms for different types of protection orders, counties are required to provide one single petition form that can be used to file for any type of protection order. If signed by the governor, the law will take effect in July 2022.
“It’s supposed to be set up easy enough to have somebody who is not represented by an attorney to fill it out by themselves,” said Kristina Hammond from Lutheran Community Services.
But it’s often difficult. Petitioners can experience frustrations over bureaucracy and struggle with reliving trauma to fill out the petitions, Hammond said.
Advocacy groups like Lutheran Community Services, the YWCA, and Mujeres in Action (MiA) not only help people through the protection order process, but help with safety planning and offer others support.
When a survivor of domestic violence comes into the YWCA asking about protection orders, Tiffany Yamase, a legal advocate, first helps them decide if a protection order is right for them.
If the woman fled from another county and the perpetrator doesn’t know she has moved, then the protection order would reveal her new location, Yamase said. Sometimes with a perpetrator who doesn’t respect authority, serving them with the protection order can be “like poking the bear,” Yamase said.
Survivors know their situation best, Yamase said.
“Sometimes it doesn’t feel safe to go get a protection order,” Hammond said. “Maybe they’ve been told it’s not safe, maybe the perpetrator or the abuser has told them they will harm them.”
Financial security is also a big reason why women don’t come forward, Hammond said. Advocates can help with those issues, connecting women to financial resources, supporting them in safety planning and accompanying them to court hearings.
If a woman makes it through the stress of applying for an order, that still doesn’t mean it will be granted. This can be due to a lack of evidence or even the way the paperwork was filled out, Hammond said.
“That is such a hard situation to have to go through with a client,” Hammond said. “I hate going through it, because you really try to let them know that you believe them, first of all, because without people believing them, they’re not going to want to get help later on.”
Sometimes advocacy groups will help women get an attorney to continue the process or reapply with new information.
“If a petition is denied, it’s not like you can never file again,” Yamase said.
A denied protection order petition is also reflected in court records and can be part of documenting the issue for future court dealings or to law enforcement.
For applicants whose first language is not English, completing the paperwork and attending court hearings can often be more difficult, said Citlalalli Briseno, advocate counselor at MiA.
Without much assistance for non-English speakers, language is a huge barrier to seeking help in a domestic violence situation, as is immigration status, Briseno said.
“If they’re not residents of the U.S., that can play a huge role because there’s a fear of contacting the police,” Briseno said. “There’s a lot of manipulation with the same residency status, ‘Oh I’ll help you get your papers,’ and then the abuser gets mad and they’re like, ‘Oh I’m going to get you deported.’ ”
A history of bad or discriminatory experiences with the criminal justice system can also turn people away from getting the help they need, Briseno said.
At MiA, services are available in English and Spanish, and the program is in the process of expanding.
“We are highly culturally aware,” Briseno said. “We do cater to the Latinx community but we’ve had people from other minority groups reach out to us because they feel we are culturally responsive.”
‘Peace of mind’ granted
If a protection order is granted, the person named in the order often cannot be within two city blocks of the petitioner, possess firearms or have any form of contact with the petitioner. Protection orders can be tailored to individual cases. If the order is violated, it’s a misdemeanor.
“It gives them peace of mind to be able to report if they feel they are in an unsafe situation,” Yamase said.
However, protection orders aren’t always easy to enforce, said SPD’s Ferguson.
Robert D. McCrow, 37, was able to evade arrest for months and continued to violate the domestic violence protection order taken out against him, despite dozens of calls to police from his victim. Earlier this month, he was finally arrested and charged with six new counts of violating a no-contact order.
Even when police believe there may have been a violation, they need enough evidence to develop probable cause and make an arrest.
“We usually need more than just one person’s word against another,” Ferguson said.
If the restrained person calls the petitioner, let it go to voicemail, Ferguson suggested. If they drive by the house, take a photo of their car, with the license plate in view if possible. The petitioner should tell their co-workers, neighbors and friends, if comfortable, that they have a protection order against someone so if they come to their job or home, there is someone nearby who is keeping their eye out and could act as a witness, Ferguson said.
While Schaffer eventually was required to have contact with Beal over their children as part of their custody agreement, she continued to take other safety measures, like keeping her boyfriend updated as she picked up her children.
As an advocate, Hammond said she provides stalking logs for her clients and tells them how to collect evidence for future proceedings.
Even if there isn’t probable cause for an arrest, Ferguson said victims should not get discouraged and should continue reporting violations, because it “shows patterns.”
“If we don’t know anything about it, we can’t do anything about it,” Ferguson said.
While protection orders do provide more tools for the criminal justice system, it isn’t the end -all, be -all, Hammond said.
“If you don’t really have a good safety plan, a protection order isn’t always that helpful,” Hammond said. “I always tell people that the order is only as good as the person you put it against.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story included inaccurate prior convictions for Robert McCrow.
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