Shirley Mundia's mother seemingly did everything she could to protect her family from her estranged husband.

In the months leading up to 6-year-old Shirley's death last Sunday, Lucy Mundia called police four times to report domestic violence-related incidents. She took out a protective order on behalf of her and her daughter.

She called police when he violated that protective order, and police arrested Edward Mwaura. But he never faced charges for the violation because of a mistake by a deputy prosecutor, and he was released after spending six hours in jail, only to return to his wife's apartment and brutally murder his daughter.

Despite the protective order and the calls to police, the system that was put into place to protect Shirley failed.

In the days following Shirley's death, the St. Joseph County prosecutor's office examined the mistake regarding the protective order, and the attorney resigned.

Yet even if the system worked flawlessly and Mwaura had been charged with a misdemeanor count of violating Mundia's protective order -- as county Prosecutor Michael Dvorak says should have happened -- it's impossible to know if the outcome would have changed, and if Shirley would still be alive.

Even so, members of the legal and law enforcement community generally agree that protective orders when done right can be a powerful tool for a victim, as well as police and prosecutors, and a deterrent to further domestic violence.

But officials who work closely with domestic violence cases say protective orders are just one part of a larger safety plan needed in extreme cases -- cases they say should be flagged in the system before the violence escalates to a devastating loss.

A 'tool in our toolbox'

St. Joseph County handled more than 700 pro se requests for protective orders last year, meaning the victim filed the request rather than a judge establishing a no contact order when imposing a sentence or provisions to post bond.

An individual can fill out a petition for a protective order at the St. Joseph County Courthouse or the Family Justice Center. The petition goes before a judge, who will generally grant a temporary protective order if the petitioner makes a claim of domestic violence or stalking. A petitioner can also file a protective order on behalf of a child.

The judge then schedules a court appearance to hear from both parties and decides whether to grant a permanent restraining order that often lasts for two years and can be renewed.

The county could not supply information on how many of the more than 700 requests for protective orders were granted, but St. Joseph Superior Court Chief Judge Jenny Pitts Manier said she believes many more are granted than not.

Mary Butiste-Jones, a staff attorney with Indiana Legal Services Inc. who has worked at the Family Justice Center of St. Joseph County since 2007, also said the burden of proof is fairly light for domestic violence victims asking for protective orders.

Most judges prefer to see police reports that document the alleged violence, but the most important evidence is the victim's personal statement, Butiste-Jones said.

Once granted, the order is entered into an online database accessed by prosecutors, judges and police.

The St. Joseph County prosecutor's office prosecutes violations of protective orders and no contact orders, which is a misdemeanor offense the first time and rises to a felony if the individual violates it a second time.

David Powell, executive director for the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said though these cases are never cut and dried, (particularly if the victim has allowed the perpetrator to break the protective order), prosecuting the violations is one way of many to try to keep a victim safe.

"It is another tool in our toolbox. It's a helpful tool in protecting people," Powell said.

A spokeswoman for the St. Joseph County prosecutor's office said they have prosecuted 19 violations in the first three months of this year.