Can Punishing a Child Allow for a Protection from Abuse Order in Pennsylvania?

Posted by Joseph Lento | Jan 12, 2017 | 0 Comments

Parents in Pennsylvania may find themselves called to answer for punishing their child, or called to answer for false allegations regarding punishing their child.  A mother or a father can be at risk for taking child discipline too far, or can be at risk that another party, most often the other parent, will falsely claim that the parent's discipline was excessive.  Whether the claims regarding child discipline concerns are legitimate or false, a parent can find themselves served with a temporary Protection from Abuse order with a final hearing date to follow, or cases where a temporary order is not issued, notice of a Protection from Abuse hearing.  Parents in Pennsylvania, whether in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks, or Chester County, may find themselves in Family Court having to defend against domestic violence allegations when brought on a child's behalf.  Failed relationship, child custody disputes, disagreements over child support, jealously caused by one parent getting involved with another person, and countless other reasons can cause disharmony in families, and this can be the case whether the parents are together, separated, or went through a divorce.  

Can a PFA Affect Child Custody Rights in Pennsylvania?

The stakes can be high when anyone is facing domestic violence allegations, but the stakes are arguably higher when the protection order is sought on a child's behalf and child abuse is alleged.  If the protection order is granted, a parent's custody rights can be severely impacted.  Custody rights can be temporarily lost when a temporary Protection from Abuse order issued, and if a final order is issued, custody rights can be lost for the length of the final order; a maximum of three (3) years in Pennsylvania.  Parents facing allegations of abuse against a child should be mindful that a final order can also be extended, upon motion by the plaintiff, beyond the three years.  It will be up to the Family Court presiding over the matter to determine if an extension is appropriate, and the circumstances at hand will be considered by the Court at the applicable time.

Can Disciplining a Child Result in a PFA Order?

The manner in which children are raised today is very different than even a generation ago.  Whereas children in the past went outside and played, children today have so many technological distractions that are arguably making for a less fulfilling childhood than what their parents knew.  With generational changes in how children socialize and play today, there are also other differences in how children grow up.  Child discipline is also different than what is was a generation ago. 

When children today misbehave, their parents may discipline them by giving them a "time out," or by enforcing a "quiet time."  When a parent spanks, smacks, or discipline their children in a similar fashion today, parents are at risk of not only having a Protection from Abuse case brought against them if the other parents objects, but the parent may find him or herself being questioned by the police.  It is not uncommon to see news accounts of parents facing criminal charges because someone questioned how they disciplined their child.

There is no excuse for inappropriate or excessive child punishment, and parents must be diligent about not going too far, but what will be considered inappropriate?  What will be considered excessive?  And who makes these decisions? 

Who Decides What is "Inappropriate" Child Punishment in PFA Cases?

Pennsylvania lawmakers establish the laws that regulate people's behaviors in Pennsylvania.  Some laws address what actions, in the case of disciplining or punishing a child, are lawful and what actions are unlawful.  A parent does not always have to "act" in a certain manner towards a child to run afoul of the Pennsylvania law; in cases of neglect, a parent's inaction can be unlawful. 

Although Pennsylvania lawmakers establish the law, Pennsylvania courts interpret the law as it applies to the specific cases that come before the judiciary.  In Protection from Abuse cases in Pennsylvania, the court that will preside over the domestic violence and domestic abuse claims is the "Court of Common Pleas."  Each Pennsylvania county has a Court of Common Pleas; the highest court in each Pennsylvania county.  Each county's Court of Common Pleas has a "Family Court" where various Family Law matters, as the name implies, are addressed.   Within each county's Family Court, there is often a "Domestic Relations Division;" where Protection from Abuse cases are addressed and decided.  In southeastern Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks, and Chester County all have a Domestic Relations Division.  Sometimes the term "Family Court" is used interchangeably with "Domestic Relations."  In addition, in each county, Court of Common Pleas judges are assigned to handle PFA cases, and depending on the county, also other Family Law cases.

Although Family Courts in each Pennsylvania county are on the "frontlines" of Protection from Abuse cases, the decisions made in these trial courts are at times appealed to Pennsylvania appellate courts.  The Pennsylvania Superior Court is one such appellate court, and most PFA appeals are reviewed and ultimately decided.  The Pennsylvania Superior Court has specifically addressed the issue of what kinds of child discipline and child punishment can allow for a PFA order to be granted against a parent in Pennsylvania.  Parties, whether the plaintiff or defendant, involved with PFA cases involving children in Pennsylvania should understand that the overarching law governing domestic violence cases in Pennsylvania is the Protection from Abuse Act; codified under 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6101-6117.

Does the Protection from Abuse Act Prohibit Physically Punishing a Child?

The Protection from Abuse Act does not, in and of itself, prohibit a parent in Pennsylvania from using physical punishment to discipline a child for misconduct or misbehavior.  In one such case reviewed on appeal by the Pennsylvania Superior Court, a father had struck his 16-year-old daughter four or five times with a folded belt across her buttocks. The Pennsylvania Superior Court stated that the Court's opinion on the matter of child discipline and child punishment should not be construed to be an approval or condoning of the father's choice of discipline.  In the case, the punishment inflicted upon the child did not result in anything more than a temporary, painful condition, which, of course, was its intent.  In addition, there was no indication that the parent's choice of punishment resulted in any degree of bodily impairment.  The facts in this case did not warrant the entry of a Protection from Abuse order against the parent.  Chronister v. Brenneman, 742 A.2d 190 (Pa.Super. 1999).

Can Slapping a Child Result in a PFA Order?

In another PFA case that the Pennsylvania Superior Court reviewed on appeal, a mother appealed the trial court's protection order arising out of a daughter's claim that she had been slapped "hard" on the face.  Section 6107(a) of the Protection from Abuse Act provides that the "plaintiff must prove the allegation of abuse by the preponderance of the evidence."  A preponderance of the evidence standard is defined as "the greater weight of the evidence."  The preponderance of the evidence standard in PFA cases can be illustrated by "tipping a scale slightly;" the criteria or requirement for there to be a preponderance of the evidence.  Specifically, the Protection from Abuse Act defines abuse as follows:

(i) intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causing bodily injury; (ii) placing another in reasonable fear of imminent bodily injury; (iii) infliction of false imprisonment; (iv) physically or sexually abusing minor children; or (v) knowingly engaging a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts towards another person, including following the person, without proper authority, under circumstances which place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court noted that the child's medical examination after the alleged slap stated that there was "no bruising."  The Court stated the fact that the child received a hard slap does not lead inexorably to the conclusion that the child suffered an injury.  In this case, there was simply no evidence of bruising or crying sufficient to establish the existence of bodily injury.  The Protection from Abuse Act does not outlaw corporal punishment by a parent.  Because of this critical consideration, the Court reversed the PFA order against the mother.  Ferri v. Ferri, 845 A.2d 600 (Pa.Super. 2004).

PFA Attorney When Abuse of a Child is Claimed | Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks, and Chester County

When defending against a Protection from Abuse in Pennsylvania, all necessary steps must be taken to protect your interests.  At a minimum, the issuance of a temporary or final protection order can cause major disruptions to a person's life.  Where the defendant lives can be affected because a PFA can result in an eviction; a defendant's employment or education can be affected; professionals who require licensing can find their professional licenses in jeopardy; the list of potential consequences is countless when a person is faced with a PFA action.  To many parents, the ultimate potential consequence is the inability to be a part of their child's life.  Children grow up quickly, and the ten days from the time a temporary protection order prohibiting contact between a parent and a child can seem like an eternity.  When the time comes for Family Court to decide if a final protection order should be issued on behalf of the child, an order that can last for three (3) years or longer in some instances, the stakes cannot be any higher.  Before taking any chances with your and your child's future when domestic abuse allegations are claimed, make sure your interests are protected.  Having successfully handled PFA cases involving children in Philadelphia, Norristown, Media, Doylestown, West Chester, and throughout Pennsylvania, our Family Law Team understands what is at stake and what needs to be done to get your position heard and recognized in court - Contact our Family Law Team today to learn how we can help.

About the Author

Joseph Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Attorney Joseph D. Lento is a veteran of one of the nation's busiest family courts with nearly 20 years' experience passionately helping families. By day, he worked in the trenches of family court, and at night, he studied the law. He helped countless families while working at family court, and he went on to become an attorney, dedicating his law practice to continuing the work he started years earlier. Mr. Lento's experience both behind the scenes and on the front lines allows him to understand a client's family law matter from all angles, and allows him to find and employ the most effective strategies to get favorable outcomes for any client. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania New Jersey, and New York, and is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide. In the courtroom and in life, attorney Joseph D. Lento stands up when the bell rings!


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