If you or a loved one has been served a Protection from Abuse order (PFA) in Delaware County, the ramifications will be immediate and severe. PFAs are designed to help victims of abuse put in place legal protections against their abusers. The terms of PFAs can award victims temporary custody of any children and bar alleged abusers from the children and the family home.
In Delaware County and throughout Pennsylvania, it is not unknown for couples with troubled relationships to cross-apply for PFAs, or in some cases, for unscrupulous parents to use them as a shortcut to custody. Because of the severe implications of these court orders, if you are a parent, you will likely be very concerned about what this will mean for custody and your relationship with your children.
Below is a Q&A with a number of the most common questions related to PFA orders and related family law issues in Delaware County.
What is a PFA?
A Protection from Abuse order or PFA is a protective order which victims of abuse can request to have put in place against their abusers. In legal terms, a PFA orders the defendant (the alleged abuser) to stop all “abuse, threats, harassment, or stalking” of the plaintiff (the victim).
Like other restraining orders, a PFA makes it becomes illegal for an abuser to contact or even be in the vicinity of their victim. However, PFAs specifically cover domestic abuse cases only family members or intimate partners can request them. They also go much further than standard restraining orders.
Seeing as you can only file a PFA against family, intimate partners, co-parents, or a member of your household, many PFAs amount to an eviction. They can also strip away custody and visitation rights and include any provisions necessary to keep the victim and their household safe. Having been separated from your ex-partner and children with a PFA, the terms of the PFA might also order you to provide housing and pay spousal support.
PFAs are legally enforceable court orders. Both Delaware County law enforcement and County Court judges will punish any violations of a PFA severely.
What is the process for getting a PFA in Delaware County, PA?
To get a PFA, you have to go tothe Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. First, the plaintiff (the person applying for the PFA) will petition for a temporary PFA for the interim (usually ten days) before the final hearing. Then at the final hearing, the judge can finalize a permanent PFA.
In the first instance, the plaintiff completes a petition for a temporary PFA at the Office of Judicial Support, which can be found at 201 West Front Street, Media, PA 19063. Alternatively, they can go to the Domestic Abuse Project on 14 West Second Street.
The plaintiff will then file the petition at the Office of the Court Administrator to get the petition in front of a judge.
There will typically be a brief preliminary hearing with both sides present, at the end of which the judge will issue a temporary restraining order and set a date for the final hearing. Alternatively, a District Justice may issue an emergency PFA Order without a hearing and without both sides being present.
In either case, the defendant will be served their temporary or emergency PFA with the date, time, and location of the final hearing. PFA hearings take place at Delaware County Court, and both parties strictly must attend.
Both sides would need to attend the PFA hearing when a judge will consider the petition, decide what measures are appropriate, and issue a permanent order. If the judges finalize a permanent PFA, the successful plaintiff will take copies to the police, which would be enforceable for the next three years.
Can the court deny a petition for a PFA?
Delaware County Court can deny a petition for a PFA if it does not meet the legal requirements. They might also issue a temporary PFA and then decide at the final hearing to dismiss the PFA.
To meet the requirements for a PFA, the plaintiff must do the following:
- Make allegations of abuse covered by the Protection from Abuse Act. This includes physical abuse, threats that places you in immediate fear of physical injury, or a pattern of conduct, such as stalking, which puts you in immediate fear of physical harm.
- 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.
What provisions can a PFA include?
The judge will consider the plaintiff's petition and decide at the hearing what provisions to make to ensure the family is safe and secure. More than a simple restraining order, the provisions of a PFA can be wide-ranging. A PFA can:
- Prohibit all contact with the plaintiff
- Evict the defendant from the family home and bar them from returning.
- Award custody of the children to the plaintiff and place restrictions on the defendant's contact with them.
- Require the defendant to pay restitution to the plaintiff (their victim) and cover their legal costs.
- Require the defendant to pay financial support, including spousal or child support.
- Prohibit the defendant from possessing a firearm so long as there is an active PFA against them.
Can I see my children if I have been served a PFA?
A PFA may or may not prohibit you from seeing your kids; it depends on its terms. If your ex is petitioning for a PFA against you, they may request that the court also restricts your contact with the children you have together. Ultimately, the judge will decide whether to name your children in the protective order as well.
To make their decision, the judge will consider whether they see you as a threat to your children. The court can prohibit custody, partial custody, or unsupervised visitation if they believe the children are in danger of abuse. They might also penalize you if you have violated previous protective or custody orders.
A PFA could override any pre-existing custody order you had or create a new custody arrangement if one did not exist before. If your record shows you pose a risk to others but not necessarily your child, the court may allow you only supervised access. In this case, you might be permitted visitation but only with third-party supervision or in a secure facility.
If your child is named in the PFA, both the police and the child's school will be aware of these restrictions, and you will be breaking the law if you violate these terms.
What happens if I violate the custody provision of a PFA order in Delaware County?
If you violate any part of the PFA order, you could face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 for contempt of court. The court might also extend the order or alter its terms, and the violation could be used as evidence against you in any other court cases, including future custody hearings.
Can I challenge a PFA so I can see my children again?
If a temporary PFA has prohibited contact with your children, you will have to comply with that order until the final PFA hearing, when you will get a chance to defend yourself.
The judge will decide at the final PFA hearing whether you can see your children. If they rule against it, you can fight their decision by trying to get the PFA expunged. Your immediate options are filing a Motion for Reconsideration or launching a formal appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.
If your appeals are unsuccessful, you will be bound by the restrictions until the PFA expires. When the PFA expires, its restrictions end, and you could have a chance to renegotiate custody and visitation arrangements. Your ex could be seeking to renew the PFA, so you mustn't inadvertently violate the order by making contact too early.
Can I file a PFA during a custody proceeding?
If you and your child's other parent are in the middle of custody proceedings, you can file a PFA against the other parent if you feel your child is at risk of imminent abuse and needs protection.
Some less scrupulous plaintiffs might use a PFA to quickly obtain temporary custody without going through the full custody process. In this case, it is important to start the process of reversing the order right away so you can regain visitation and custody rights.
Can I file for custody if I'm subject to a PFA order?
So long as it does not conflict with the terms of the order, having a PFA against you does not bar you from petitioning for custody.
The court would not be able to grant you custody if it violates a PFA that is in effect. However, if your children aren't protected under the PFA, if you petition for custody, the court may still grant it to you.
Keep in mind, however, that the court may look upon your petition more unfavorably on account of the PFA and any past allegations of abuse.
Do I have to pay child support if I'm served with a PFA?
A judge may order you to provide financial support to your ex and children under the terms of a PFA. Also, even if you have been evicted, you will most likely have to continue paying towards rent or mortgage repayments. If your accuser wants to enforce the PFA's financial support provisions, they must file a complaint for support within two weeks of the PFA taking effect, or this part of the order becomes void. The court might also order you to pay your ex's legal costs.
Do You Need Expert Legal Advice on Custody and PFAs?
Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm can help you navigate the complexities of custody arrangements where there is a PFA involved. Schedule an initial consultation with an experienced Family Law attorney today by calling 888-535-3686.