On Memorial Day in 1978 an unspeakable tragedy occurred on a small street off Forest Avenue in Cohasset.
The mother of three small children called police around 7:30 a.m. to report her husband had beaten her. Because police had not witnessed the abuse, they advised her to seek a court complaint, which she agreed to do when the courts opened on Tuesday.
Joan Quirk, 42, never made it to court.
Following a quarrel with her husband later on that holiday, James R. Quirk, 46, shot Joan, and their three children, ages 8, 6, and 3, before turning his gun on himself. Joan and James died; the three children were hospitalized in critical condition but survived, according to published reports.
That incident provided the impetus for the 209A (abuse prevention) statute under which a victim can obtain a temporary restraining order at any time. While no one can say for sure if an emergency “209A” would have prevented that tragedy – there is a chance it could have. Restraining orders immediately separate the victim from the abuser and police are required to confiscate all firearms.
Former U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, who was the Norfolk County District Attorney in 1978, remembers the tragedy well. Before that horrific incident, domestic violence was often hidden behind closed doors.
“Police were very reluctant to get involved because they viewed it as a privacy issue between husband and wife,” Delahunt said, adding the magnitude of that crime 37 years ago in Cohasset helped change that.
“It was a terrible tragedy,” he recalled. “But it did help launch into the public awareness about domestic violence and was the catalyst for the 209A law.”
He said the murder-suicide not only provided the genesis of the Massachusetts statute but also had an impact nationally on how domestic violence is handled. And as a result, the Norfolk Co. DA’s office under Delahunt, developed the country’s first prosecutorial unit on domestic violence and sexual assault cases.
Acting Cohasset Police Chief William Quigley explained that police only become involved in obtaining a restraining order if the courts are closed. All police departments receive a list every Friday with the name and contact number of an on-call judge in the area who can be reached anytime after hours. The judge talks to the victim on the phone and goes through a list of questions including whether the defendant possesses any firearms. If there are, those firearms must be turned over to law enforcement.
Once the defendant is served with the 209A protective order – a civil matter – it becomes a criminal matter if he or she violates those parts of the restraining order that require the defendant not to abuse the plaintiff, to have no contact with the plaintiff, to stay away from the plaintiff, and to turn in any firearms owned by the defendant.
“Police have no discretion in making an arrest if those portions of the order are violated,” Acting Chief Quigley said.
An emergency 209A obtained during off-court hours is good until the next sitting of the court. The defendant is served with a copy of the order forthwith and informed that a hearing will be held before a judge, at which time the judge can extend the order for up to a year. (When a plaintiff obtains an ex parte order during regular court hours, the order is effective for a 10-day period to allow the defendant to be notified of the proceeding. A hearing then is held and the judge can extend the order for up to a year.)
First Assistant Clerk Magistrate at Hingham District Court Andrew P. Quigley (no relation to Cohasset Chief Quigley) said that the 209A law has served the purpose for which it was intended.
“The problem of domestic abuse is complex and no one would suggest that the 209A law alone is a perfect solution,” said Quigley, who has been a magistrate in the Hingham court for 22 years. “But since the inception of the 209A law, tens of thousands of our citizens have been afforded protection from abusive partners and family members and the law continues to provide protection to citizens on a daily basis in every district court in the Commonwealth.
“Oftentimes,” added Quigley, “we see that a 209A order in a family situation provides a cooling-off period, both protecting the victims from further abuse and forcing the abusers to step back and realize that their behavior is unacceptable and that they must resolve their issues in a non-abusive, non-aggressive manner. In other situations, a 209A order sends a very clear message to an abuser that the relationship with the plaintiff is over and that any further contact with the plaintiff will have serious consequences for the defendant, including incarceration.”
Toni Troop, director of communications and development at Jane Doe, Inc., said while the value of a restraining order cannot be overstated, a restraining order is strengthened when there is a coordinated response in a community that places the responsibility for the abuse directly on the batterer and offers a comprehensive response and support to the victim.
“Victims are at increased risk of danger when they seek an order, decide to leave or take other action to protect themselves,” Troop said. “It’s important to note that a restraining order is not a pre-requisite for a victim to seek services from a domestic violence program, for the police to respond or for the abuser to be prosecuted.
“Restraining orders were created legislatively and imposed judicially based on the abusive, violent and often life-threatening behavior of the perpetrator,” she said.
Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, brings together organizations and people committed to ending domestic violence and sexual assault.