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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.

It's all part of the cycle of dependence that is common in domestic violence cases.

"We always advise strongly against dropping it," Rubinoff said. "If the court thought there was basis to grant one in the first place, there's something going on."

The phenomenon is mirrored on the criminal side.

District Attorney Jill Ravitch said getting victims to come forward is difficult and convicting offenders is challenging.

Victims often recant or refuse to testify after charges are filed. Even with full cooperation, jurors can end up acquitting defendants.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that bars evidence from unwilling victims was a setback, Ravitch said.

Many of the cases wind up in the dedicated domestic violence court. Three deputy prosecutors are assigned to the specialized unit along with two advocates.

"We're asking people to testify about very personal things and harm done to them by someone they love," Ravitch said. "It's not just the emotion. It's the fear and worry about one's family and economic security. All kinds of variables go into it."

Though the numbers have declined over the past year, it remains one of the top issues for prosecutors in Sonoma County. Of the nearly 12,500 police reports received by the district attorney since July 1, about 1,040 involve allegations of spousal abuse, Ravitch said.

Public services are available for victims of domestic violence. The newly opened Family Justice Center in Santa Rosa offers assistance with restraining orders and legal advice for people trying to decide if they should press charges.

The Mendocino Avenue facility also helps victims of sexual assault and elder abuse. It has had about 400 clients since the doors opened in October.

"The important thing is for people to reach out," Ravitch said. "If they let us help them, they become survivors."

Treatment is also available for offenders. The courts offer a 52-week batterers program.

But the Petaluma murder-suicide could encourage authorities to do more, too. On the day Kim Conover was killed, she had returned to her attorney's office to start anew efforts to get a restraining order against Kevin Conover, her family said.

The case could serve as a wake-up call to police, prosecutors and judges to review the facts more carefully. No one wants a killing on their watch.

"The primary lesson is every one of these calls has to be taken seriously," said Sonoma County Superior Court presiding judge Rene Chouteau. "And we have to do our best to respond as quickly as possible."

"What is clear to me is that this was a tragic outcome," Ravitch said. "It's important that we look at how we can keep something like this from occurring again."

Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.