48 Investigates: How protective are protective orders? - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

48 Investigates: How protective are protective orders?

One week before a fatal Madison County fire, a victim was granted a protection from abuse order against her estranged husband. (Source: WAFF) One week before a fatal Madison County fire, a victim was granted a protection from abuse order against her estranged husband. (Source: WAFF)

We are still waiting for details about how four people found dead in a burning Madison County home were killed. The bodies of Jean Smallwood, Kristen Henderson, who was nine months pregnant, 8-year-old Clayton Chambers, and 1-year-old Eli Sokolowski were found in the remains of the home.

Christopher Henderson and Rhonda Carlson are charged with capital murder in connection with the fire . Court documents show Henderson was in the middle of a divorce with Kristen. Meanwhile, Henderson and Carlson were also married at the same time. 

READ MORE: Estranged husband, previous wife arrested in deaths of family members

One week before the fire, Kristen was granted a protection from abuse order against Henderson. With him now as the main suspect in her murder, WAFF is looking at how protective protective orders really are.

Tanya Regan keeps a bag of memories. It's filled with newspaper clippings and years worth of horrific details jotted down in journals of her run-ins with her husband during their 12 year marriage.

She endured abuse in many different forms.

"Most of his was verbal, emotional and psychological, he would threaten me with weapons a lot," said Regan. "First time I left was the day he pointed a shotgun at me and he said, 'this one's for you,'"

For some victims, it takes a few times to break free. What sent Tanya back to her abuser was her three children, and when two different judges would not grant her a protection from abuse order, also known as a PFA.

"I had no visible injury it was his word against my word," she said. "He advised that I just go home and that he had talked to my husband and that my husband assured him that he meant me no harm. It was about Christmas time and I just needed to go home. I looked at the judge and said what if he kills me."

A newspaper headline explains what happened after she left him and then when he tried to kill her, 'Coffee man still in standoff.'

"He snatched the backdoor open and part of what I learned in shelter is to have a safety plan ready and I had a metal chair holding the door, that blocked him and I went out the front door," said Regan.

For two days, he stayed inside the trailer shooting at police before eventually surrendering. That's when a judge realized she just might need that protection order.

Regan now wears multiple hats as a survivor, court advocate and a supervisor at HOPE Place Shelter.

"The protection order does at least give that woman a little power to begin taking her life back," added Regan.

According to the American Bar Association, some 86% of the women who received a protection order said the abuse either stopped or was greatly reduced, but no one can predict which cases will end in deaths.

"Protective orders can't stop a monster," said domestic violence advocate Bill Farris. "In large measure it is doing its job but we only hear about the failures."

However, not having a PFA limits what steps law enforcement can take.

"It gives the police a reason to arrest him," said Farris. "If he does show up at your house, it gives them a reason to arrest him if he shows up at your children's school or where you work. It offers a lot more advantages than just the paper."

Although, he did acknowledge the legal limitations.

"In a perfect world, every time someone violated a protection order they would be arrested, they would go to jail, but in practical terms that's not possible," added Farris. "However, every day someone is released. Released on bond or on their own recognizance, because the legal system operates the way the legal system operates."

There are multiple resources available for victims to keep them safe.

  • Domestic Violence helplines, available 24/7: 
  • Crisis Services of North Alabama - 256-716-1000
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline - 1-800-799-7233
  • Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) 1-88-656-HOPE (4673)
  • National Coalition Against Domestic Violence - 303-839-1852
  • Safe Horizons Crime Victims Hotline - 1-800-621-4673
  • Safe Horizons Rape, Sexual Assault and Incest Hotline - 212-227-3000

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