They can order an abusive spouse to stay away from children, prevent them from returning home or help to maintain things like medical insurance and transportation.
Restraining orders are seen as one of the most effective tools in protecting victims of domestic violence.
"Most respondents do not ignore these orders," said Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County. "It's the rare cases that get all the publicity. The public thinks they can't protect them. If you don't get one, it can't protect you."
Her nonprofit agency helps hundreds of people a year with advice on getting them. They are successful about 80 percent of the time, she said.
Countywide, there were 665 applications for temporary restraining orders in 2011. The number of those approved was not available.
Restraining orders come two ways — criminal or civil. A criminal order is obtained by the district attorney in connection with a pending case.
The more common civil orders can begin with a call to police. Officers investigate and may seek a one-week emergency protective order with approval from the on-duty judge.
A temporary restraining order is the next step. It can be issued without input from the offender that day. Victims usually drop off paperwork in the morning and get the order before close of business, Rubinoff said.
Two to three weeks later, a hearing will be set for a permanent order that can last up to five years.
But before that happens, victims often change their minds. Some decide they don't need it anymore or take back statements to police. And if the victim drops out, the order cannot go forward.