A recent case discusses the issue of whether someone can get a restraining order against a perpetrator for past sexual abuse. The plaintiff and defendant in the case, Yahna Y. v. Sylvester S., are first cousins. The defendant is a couple of years older than the plaintiff. 

Facts of the Case

For about two years, when the plaintiff was in the sixth and seventh grades, the defendant sexually abused her. The defendant told the victim not to tell anyone about the abuse. The defendant abused the victim at least ten times over that time period. Ultimately, when she was in the eighth grade, the victim reported the abuse to her parents. After she told her parents, the families of the plaintiff and defendant intervened. They kept the defendant away from the plaintiff, except for one encounter at their grandmother’s funeral. At the funeral, the defendant approached the victim despite being told not to do so. 

It was undisputed that the abuse severely affected the plaintiff. She had been in therapy since the abuse. She missed thirty days of school during the eighth grade, went to school late nearly every day, showered three times a day, and could not look in the mirror.

In 2018, the plaintiff began attending the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (“UMass Amherst”).  There, she lived on campus. On September 23, 2018, the defendant, who was not a student at UMass Amherst, approached the plaintiff in a dining hall. The victim froze, then fled. She stated that she no longer felt safe on campus and returned home for a week.

The victim’s father called his brother. He requested that the defendant stay away from the UMass Amherst campus. Nevertheless, the defendant called the plaintiff. The defendant also sent her a series of disturbing text messages. The defendant demanded that the victim respond to him. The plaintiff filed for a protective order the following day. She did so under Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 209A. 

Procedural History
Trial Court

A protective order is also referred to as a restraining order. The restraining order serves to protect a victim of domestic abuse. A 209A restraining order applies to certain categories of people. For example, a victim can ask the court for a restraining order against a member or former member of the victim’s household. A victim can also seek a restraining order to protect the victim from abuse or violence by someone the victim is or was dating. Though a slightly different situation in this case, the plaintiff alleged abuse under two of the prongs of the law. Those prongs include: “(b) placing another in fear of imminent serious physical harm; [or] (c) causing another to engage involuntarily in sexual relations by force, threat or duress.”

The trial court granted the plaintiff’s protective order. The defendant then appealed.

Appeals Court

The Massachusetts Appeals Court noted that it was possible for the plaintiff to obtain a protective order based on past sexual or physical abuse. “To obtain an abuse prevention order based on an allegation of abuse under § 1 (b), the plaintiff must satisfy a subjective and an objective standard:  she must show both that she is currently in fear of imminent serious physical harm, and that her fear is reasonable,” the Appeals Court stated. In this case, the court stated, the trial judge may reasonably conclude that a protective order should issue, as the damage resulting from past physical harm affected the victim. This was true even though further physical attack may not be reasonably imminent.

“The judge credited the plaintiff’s testimony that the defendant sexually abused her when she was in the sixth and seventh grades, that she was traumatized by the abuse she endured, and that the defendant’s reappearance immediately after she left home for college reopened her feelings of fear, vulnerability, and helplessness,” the Appeals Court explained. “Despite the family’s attempt to intervene, the defendant aggressively pursued the plaintiff. The judge could reasonably conclude that the damage from the defendant’s past sexual abuse still affected the plaintiff and that an order was necessary to protect her from the impact of that abuse, even if the evidence did not show that another sexual assault or other physical harm was imminent.” The Appeals Court affirmed the trial court’s grant of the protective order.

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