Domestic abuse victims in Berks County, Pennsylvania, can receive legal protection from abuse via the Protection from Abuse order. In some cases, the order can also protect the victim's children against this type of harm, even naming specific children to be protected. As a result, the PFA order may raise confusion about custody since a PFA in Pennsylvania can legally speak to custody issues.
What is the intersection between legal custody and the restrictions of a PFA? How can a PFA affect custody in general? The Lento Law Firm has unparalleled experience in this area, and we have compiled the following questions and answers to help you understand how PFAs affect your custody rights in Berks County.
What is a PFA and how does it work?
PFA stands for Protection from Abuse. This is a Pennsylvania-specific type of restraining order that provides legal protection from abuse or threat to abuse. PFAs can only be filed against a household member, intimate partner, or child's parent. The PFA orders the defendant (the person against which it is filed), to stop harassing, stalking, or threatening the plaintiff (the person who filed it).
If you are served with a PFA, the PFA can:
- Prohibit you from contacting or attempting to contact the alleged victim and/or their children
- Prohibit you from entering the victim's home, even if it also happens to be your home.
- Require you to pay temporary support and/or pay any expenses incurred by the victim as a result of the abuse
- Order you to return any personal property taken from the plaintiff
What are the requirements to obtain a PFA?
Two factors are essential in determining eligibility for a PFA: The type and nature of the abuse and the relationship between the victim and the abuser.
Types of abuse: Pennsylvania's Protection from Abuse Act defines certain behaviors that are considered abuse. These include physical abuse and sexual abuse, threats to abuse, stalking, false imprisonment, threats to abuse, etc.
Relationship to the abuser: The PFA only protects victims from people with whom they are in an intimate or familial relationship. These include spouses, partners in domestic affairs, domestic partners, dating relationships, and family members by marriage or blood. (Abuses taking place outside these relationships may be protected by other types of restraining orders.)
Where can I file for a PFA in Berks County?
You can file for a PFA in the Protection from Abuse Department of the Berks County Family Court, which is located at 633 Court St, Reading, PA 19601. The PFA Department is located in the First Floor Services Center of the Courthouse. Filing hours are Monday through Friday, 8:00 AM to 2:00 PM. For emergency PFAs after hours, you can go to the Reading Central Court on the first floor of the Courthouse after 6:00 PM on weekdays and on weekends or holidays. Courthouse instructions state you must not bring anyone with you when you come to file for a PFA.
If a PFA is filed against me, what happens next?
The PFA process often begins with an emergency or temporary PFA, which your significant other can request from the Berks County Family Court. This PFA would be granted “ex parte,” meaning without your presence. The PFA goes into effect immediately and can last up to 10 days, at which point a final hearing will be scheduled. You can present your evidence at the final hearing, and an attorney can assist you. The judge will decide if there is a valid need for the PFA. If so, the PFA becomes final, and it lasts for up to 3 years unless it is rescinded or overturned. Failure to appear for the final hearing may result in the judge deciding against you summarily and finalizing the PFA.
Where will the final hearing be if I am served with a PFA in Berks County?
PFA hearings are held at the Berks County Family Court in Reading. The hearing's date and time are determined by the court. When you are served with the PFA, it will specify the time and place of the hearing.
Can a PFA stop me from seeing my children?
Yes, it's possible. A PFA allows an individual the right to ask for restrictions on visiting their children or making contact with them. If your ex wants to limit your contact with your children, and the court agrees to it, you'd be restricted from visiting your kids while the PFA is in effect.
What happens if I violate the custody provisions of a Berks County PFA order?
You could face criminal contempt charges if you violate any of the terms of the PFA, including any custody or visitation restrictions. You could face a penalty of up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. If you are convicted for violating the PFA, the court may also extend the duration of the PFA order. Your violation of the PFA could also be used against you if you have any other court cases or custody hearings pending.
Can I challenge a PFA to regain access to my children?
Possibly for a final PFA, but not for an emergency or temporary PFA. If custody or visitation is restricted by a temporary PFA, you have to avoid contact with your children at least until the final hearing, at which point you can present evidence and challenge the PFA. A family law attorney can significantly improve your chances of regaining custody rights at this hearing.
If the PFA is upheld and finalized with the custody restrictions in place, you may still be able to challenge it in one of the following ways:
- Filing a motion to reconsider within 10 days of the hearing.
- Appealing the decision to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania within 30 days of the hearing.
Can a PFA be used to supersede existing child custody orders?
Yes, in some situations. If the court believes that you are likely to abuse the children or to remove them from the area, the temporary PFA may revoke your custody rights until the final hearing. If your children are not specifically named in the final PFA, the court will only allow the PFA to revoke your custody rights if it believes the children are at risk of abuse from you.
Some people use PFAs in Pennsylvania to bypass the more complex custody process and take temporary custody of their children—especially if the parent filing the PFA believes the children are in danger. If a PFA has unfairly or incorrectly revoked your custody rights, you should consult with a family law attorney as soon as possible to seek to have those terms reversed.
Do I have to continue paying child support if I am served with a PFA?
Yes. A PFA will not override your responsibility to child support if you have been separated from your spouse. A PFA may also require you to cover health insurance, rent, mortgage payments, medical expenses resulting from your abuse, and even court costs and attorney fees. If you are living at home, and the PFA requires you to move, you might still be required to pay your rent or mortgage payment even though you can't live on the premises while the PFA is in effect.
Can I obtain a PFA specifically to protect my child?
Yes. Minors cannot file a PFA on their own. A parent, relative, household member, or guardian must request it for them. The process for obtaining it is the same for minors as it is for adults.
What happens if a PFA expires and I want my custody rights to be restored?
If the PFA includes custody restrictions regarding your children, those restrictions expire when the PFA does. If your custody rights were completely revoked as part of the terms of the PFA, you may need to renegotiate custody or visitation arrangements.
If there is no current custody order, can a PFA grant custody?
Yes. A PFA can be used to specify custody arrangements if they have not already been put in place through other means. If the alleged abuse occurs against the child of both the plaintiff and defendant, the protection order can grant temporary custody for the plaintiff and deny custody for the defendant. A PFA can also be used to revoke the defendant's parental rights or grant partial custody and supervised visitation in certain circumstances.
If I am under a PFA order, can I still file for custody?
Yes, provided the children aren't specifically named under the PFA. The court will not grant custody to you if your petition would violate the PFA order. Also, bear in mind that a PFA could negatively impact your petition for custody because your past and current conduct are considered factors in granting custody. A PFA could indicate abuse and affect the court's decision whether to grant custody.
Because PFAs are designed to address a wide range of situations (including child protection and custody questions), it can get confusing when a PFA overlaps with current custody arrangements between parents. An experienced Pennsylvania family law attorney can answer your questions regarding PFAs and their impact on custody rights—as well as help you to present a compelling defense at a PFA hearing and challenge any or all of the terms. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has unparalleled experience helping clients navigate the nuances of PFAs in Berks County, PA. To schedule an initial consultation, contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686.