Protection from Abuse orders (PFAs) exist to help victims of abuse in Pennsylvania seek legal protection against their abusers. They have extensive powers. In Bucks County and throughout Pennsylvania, the court can use these orders to bar individuals from seeing their family home or children.
If your child's other parent has served you with a PFA, you will likely have many questions. Below is a Q&A with many of the most common questions related to family law issues and PFA orders in Bucks County.
What is a PFA?
A Protection from Abuse order or PFA is a type of restraining order that allows an individual to request legal protection from abuse by another individual. You can only file a PFA against a member of the family or household, an intimate partner, or the co-parent of your child.
In legal terms, the person filing for the order is the plaintiff, and the person they file against is the defendant. A PFA orders the defendant to stop abuse, threats, harassment, or stalking of the plaintiff and can place a number of further restrictions or conditions on them. These court orders are legally enforceable and binding. If you violate the terms, you could pay a high price in both the criminal and family courts.
Violations of the terms are a criminal matter, and the consequences can be serious.
What is the process for getting a PFA?
The Bucks County Court of Common Pleas serves Bucks County's 60,000 residents. Anyone who plans to file for a PFA will have to go to the court's division of Domestic Relations. Within ten days, they will get a hearing date. PFA hearings are held on Wednesdays, at 9:30 a.m., on the 3rd floor of the Domestic Relations Court House, 30 E. Court Street, Doylestown. Hearings are also held at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown. The date, time, and location of the hearing will be specified in the order when you are served the PFA. At the hearing, the judge will finalize the order. From then on, should the PFA be violated in any way, you could face criminal charges.
What is the process for getting an emergency PFA?
If there is a domestic emergency and the Court of Common Pleas is closed and, plaintiffs may file a petition for an emergency PFA. These are time-limited orders that can be granted only by the District Justice. Often police will assist with these orders, and they last until the end of the next business day. The plaintiff will then have to file for a temporary PFA once the court opens, should they wish to proceed.
What provisions can a PFA include?
A judge can make a number of provisions in the PFA depending on the specific circumstances of the case and any requests made by the plaintiff.
A PFA might:
- Prohibit contact with the plaintiff.
- Evict you from your shared home with the plaintiff, or else prohibit you from entering the plaintiff's home. It will also likely bar you from going near their school, business or workplace.
- Award plaintiff temporary custody of the minor children and place restrictions on contact with them.
- Require you to pay the plaintiff for any financial losses suffered as a result of the abuse, as well as the costs of their legal action, including filing and service fees and reasonable attorney's fees.
- Require you to provide housing and pay temporary child custody/spousal support and any other relief the court deems reasonable.
- Prohibit you from acquiring or possessing firearms for the duration of the order.
Can the court deny a PFA order?
The court will not automatically grant PFAs. If the request does not meet the requirements, the court will deny it. To get a PFA, a plaintiff can only allege abuse covered by the Protection from Abuse Act. The plaintiff must also have a relationship with the defendant covered by the PFA Act. That means a member of the family or household, an intimate partner, or the co-parent of your child. If either the alleged abuse or relationship does not meet these standards, then the court will deny the PFA. If it does meet these requirements, the court will put a temporary PFA in place until they finalize the PFA. However, Bucks County Courts have the power to dismiss a temporary PFA at a final hearing or remove or overturn a PFA that's in effect.
How long are PFAs in effect?
- Emergency PFAs generally last until the end of the next working day.
- Temporary (ex-parte) PFAs last ten days.
- Finalized PFAs generally last for three years.
Can I see my kids if my ex got a PFA against me?
If your ex is the plaintiff, they may argue that the court also needs to restrict your contact with any children you have together. Through a PFA, the court may revoke your custody rights or limit contact, but only they find that you are a threat to the children. The court will look at any past abuse claims and judge whether you are a risk. They will also consider if you have violated any previous custody orders. However, if the protection order does not name your children, your custody rights will not automatically be revoked.
What happens if I violate the custody provision of a PFA order in Bucks County?
If you violate any part of the PFA order, you may be held in contempt of court. Violating a court order is a criminal offense for which you could face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. You would also not have the right to a trial by jury, but you would have a right to counsel.
Even if you escape criminal consequences, the plaintiff could file a petition for civil contempt. If the court finds you to be in civil contempt, you could face jail time for up to six months.
There could be further consequences. If convicted of violating the PFA, the court can also extend the order or alter its terms. If you have other pending court cases, your violation of the PFA could build evidence against you.
Does my children's school know about the PFA against me?
If your child is named in the PFA, Bucks County Family Court will report the PFA to the child's school. The school will be made aware that they cannot provide information to you. Should the PFA prohibit contact with your children, the court will inform the school that they must uphold these restrictions. The school will not permit contact with your child on their grounds and will bar you from school events.
Can I challenge a PFA so I can see my children again?
If you want to challenge a PFA, you will have to defend yourself at the final PFA hearing. In the meantime, if the temporary ten-day PFA prohibits it, you will not be able to see your children before then.
If the judge finalizes a PFA at this hearing despite your defense, you can still fight it. Your two options are to file a Motion for Reconsideration within ten days of the hearing or to file an appeal with the Superior Court of Pennsylvania within 30 days of the hearing.
Can I get child custody rights back after a PFA expires?
If not extended, a PFA will generally last three years, after which point it will expire. Once the PFA has expired, you will no longer be bound by any of the restrictions in the order. This means if your custody rights were taken away as part of the PFA, you could have an opportunity to re-negotiate custody and visitation arrangements.
Your ex may well be seeking to renew the PFA or fight you for custody. You mustn't inadvertently violate your PFA by making contact too early, as this will damage your chances of gaining custody.
Can a PFA grant custody if there's no pre-existing custody order?
A PFA can set out custody arrangements regardless of whether or not there is a court-ordered custody order already in place. The court can make these arrangements at their discretion. The judge could give your ex custody and deny custodial or visitation rights if they deem you a risk to the children. Depending on the circumstances, they may allow supervised visitation. These arrangements would need to be negotiated when the PFA expires.
Can I file for custody if I'm subject to a PFA order?
As long as the PFA against you doesn't specifically prohibit it, you can still petition for custody. However, if the protective order names your children on the protective order, then a custody court would not be able to violate its terms. A judge will take allegations of abuse into account when ruling on custody, so while your PFA may not rule it out, it could likely hurt your chances of gaining custody of the kids.
How can I fight for my kids when faced with a PFA?
Unfortunately, some people use PFAs opportunistically as a shortcut to gain custody. If your custody or visitation rights are taken away as a result of a protection order in Bucks County, you should start the process of reversing the order right away so you can regain custody rights. While being held away from your children is every parent's worst nightmare, violating a court order will damage your chances of being reunited. You must remain within the bounds of the law and seek appropriate legal advice.
If you have questions about custody and PFAs, Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm can help you understand the best course of action concerning custody when there's a PFA involved. Schedule an initial consultation with an experienced Family Law attorney today by calling 888-535-3686.