If you live in Dauphin County, PA, and you have been served with a Protection from Abuse order (PFA) that contains language regarding custody of your children, it's enough to spark some confusion. PFAs in Pennsylvania not only enable domestic abuse victims to seek legal protection from their abusers, but they can also be used to protect any children from abuse—and they may even contain provisions that affect your custody rights.
What, exactly, can a PFA do regarding custody? If domestic abuse has threatened you or your child, can a PFA give you custody as well as protect you both? And if you've been served with a PFA, how will it affect your custody rights? The Lento Law Firm has compiled the following information to help bring clarity regarding PFAs in Dauphin County.
What is a PFA, and what does it do?
PFA stands for Protection from Abuse. It's a specific type of restraining order in Pennsylvania that provides protection from abuse or threats of abuse from someone with whom the victim has an intimate or familial relationship. The person filing the PFA is the plaintiff; the person against whom it is filed is the defendant. PFAs may only be filed against a spouse, ex-spouse, intimate partner, household member, and/or the child's father or mother. The person filing the PFA is the plaintiff; the person against whom it is filed is the defendant. The PFA orders the defendant to cease abusing, harassing, threatening, or stalking the plaintiff or face possible criminal charges.
PFAs in Pennsylvania are quite versatile, and the judge may tailor the directives to suit the situation. A PFA can do any of the following:
- Prohibit the defendant from making contact or trying to make contact with the plaintiff and/or their kids
- Stop the defendant from visiting the plaintiff's school, work, place of business, or house (even if the two share a home)
- Demand reimbursement from the defendant for all expenses incurred in the context of the abuse
- Order the defendant to pay temporary support
- Demand that the defendant return any stolen personal property to the plaintiff
- Contain specific instructions as to custody and visitation of the children
What are the requirements to get a PFA?
Two main factors determine whether a person is eligible to file a PFA:
- The person must suffer from behavior that classifies as abuse. Pennsylvania's Protection from Abuse Act details what legally constitutes abuse, including physical, sexual, threatened abuse, and stalking.
- The alleged abuser must have a familial or intimate relationship with the plaintiff. These include spouses or ex-spouses, domestic partners, dating relationships, and blood relatives.
(If the alleged abuser doesn't fall within the parameters of an intimate or family relationship, there are other types of restraining orders that can provide protection. Talk to an attorney to learn more.)
Where can I obtain a PFA in Dauphin County?
Dauphin County has a special program in place, the Dauphin County Victim Witness Program, to help domestic abuse victims obtain a PFA. Their offices are located next door to the Dauphin County Court, in the Dauphin County Human Services Building, 25 S. Front Street, 7th Floor, Harrisburg, PA 17101. If you need to request an emergency PFA after hours or on a weekend or holiday, the Dauphin County Victim Witness has an emergency on-call advocate available at all times at (717) 780-8052.
I was served with a PFA. Where will the hearing be held?
PFA hearings in Dauphin County are held at the Dauphin County Courthouse, 101 Market Street in Harrisburg. If you are served with a PFA, the order will include the date, time, and location of the hearing.
Is it possible for my ex to get a PFA that affects my ability to see my kids?
Yes. A PFA allows someone to request restrictions regarding visiting or contacting their children. If your ex-spouse wants to limit your contact with your kids, and the court agrees to make it a provision of the PFA, you will have to abide by whatever visitation rules are set forth in the PFA.
What happens if I refuse to comply with the custody requirements of the PFA?
Violations of the PFA terms, including custody and visitation restrictions, could result in charges of criminal contempt. You could face up to six months imprisonment and a $1000 fine. The court may extend the length of time your PFA order is in effect, and violating the PFA can even be used against you if you have other custody hearings in process.
Is my child's school informed about the PFA?
Yes. If the child's name is on the protection order, the Dauphin County Court can report the PFA to the school. The school must take the necessary steps to make sure you comply with the terms of the PFA, including (if necessary) not allowing you to visit your child at the school or even attend school events.
What happens if a PFA is filed against me in Dauphin County?
If someone files a PFA against you, you will be served notice of the PFA in person. If your significant other feels they or the children are at imminent risk from you, they can petition for an emergency or temporary PFA, which is issued “ex parte” (meaning without your presence). The PFA becomes effective immediately and lasts for up to ten days while you await a final hearing. At the final hearing, you may present your own evidence, and you may have an attorney represent you. If the judge upholds the PFA, it will become permanent, lasting up to 3 years unless overturned or rescinded. The judge may rule summarily against you for failing to show up at the final hearing.
Is it possible to challenge a PFA and see my children again?
If an emergency or temporary PFA has been issued against you, you will have to abide by it—including any terms that prohibit you from seeing your children. You won't be able to challenge it until the final hearing, which usually occurs within 10 days. At the final hearing, you will be able to present your arguments and challenge the PFA. An experienced family law attorney will greatly increase your chances for a favorable outcome in this hearing.
If the judge makes the PFA permanent, you still have two options for challenging it. You can file a motion for reconsideration within 10 days after the final hearing, and/or you may file an appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court within 30 days.
Could a PFA be used to supersede existing child custody orders?
Yes, it could. First, a temporary PFA could immediately revoke your custody rights if the court believes you might either abuse the child or attempt to flee with him/her. However, if the child has not been specifically named in the final PFA, the court can only remove your custody rights if it believes that you will inflict abuse on the child.
Some parents use a PFA as a tactic to take temporary custody of their children by bypassing the custody process. This provision is in place to help parents protect their children if they believe they are in imminent danger—but sometimes, the provision is misused. You should immediately challenge a protection order that has unfairly taken away your custody or visitation rights.
Is it still my responsibility to pay child support even if a PFA revokes my custody rights?
Yes. If you're already required to pay child support, a PFA doesn't take away that obligation. Furthermore, a PFA can also direct you to pay for insurance, medical expenses, legal expenses, and even rent or mortgage—even if you lived in the home and were required to leave to honor the protection order.
The PFA will not make the financial provisions permanent. A support complaint must be filed by the plaintiff within two weeks after the effective date of the PFA, otherwise, all financial provisions will be null.
Can I get my custody rights back after the PFA expires?
Yes, possibly. If you had custody or visitation rights before the PFA went into effect, you should have them again once the PFA expires unless the PFA specifically altered or revoked your custody rights. In that case, you might need to re-negotiate the terms of custody after the PFA expires.
Can a PFA grant custody even if there isn't an existing custody order in place?
Yes. If the allegations of abuse involve the children, the protection order may grant temporary custody to the plaintiff. The PFA can also be used to revoke the custody rights of the defendant or to grant partial custody or visitation rights under specific conditions.
Since PFAs in Pennsylvania can be configured to affect custody rights in many ways, it can be challenging to understand how a PFA overlaps with your existing custody rights and how it might change them. You need an experienced Pennsylvania family law attorney in your corner, not only to help you understand your current rights, but to fight on your behalf if a PFA unfairly revokes or restricts your ability to see your kids. Attorney Joseph D. Lento's unparalleled experience has proven invaluable in helping parents navigate the complexities of PFAs in Dauphin County. Contact the Lento law firm at 888-535-38686 to arrange a consultation.