Have you ever been threatened? Although empty threats are usually easy to brush off—or even laugh at—a genuine threat can be a terrifying experience. This is particularly true when the person posing the threat has a history of doing so or a history of violence in general.
Of course, it's also perfectly possible for an abuser to use only their words as weapons and to never resort to actual bodily harm. It's important to realize that verbal abuse is abuse, full stop. What's more, it can be every bit as damaging and traumatic as its physical counterpart. With that in mind, let's explore the types of relief available under Pennsylvania law for victims of verbal abuse.
A Definition of Abuse and Protection Under the Law
Every state has laws defining what constitutes abuse and the means by which an abused person can legally seek protection from their abuser. That protection takes the form of a court-issued document that mandates the abuser to stay away from the victim. In some places, it's called a restraining order or order of protection. Here in Pennsylvania, it's known as a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order.
Abuse is defined in this state as:
- Causing or attempting to cause physical harm, with or without a weapon
- Causing or attempting to cause a reasonable fear of physical harm
- Sexual assault
- Physical or sexual abuse of minors
- Stalking behaviors
- False imprisonment, or restricting the person's freedom of movement
In many instances, the abuse that occurs is physical in nature, or there is a history of both physical and verbal abuse. But is it possible for an individual to get a PFA order based solely on taunts, threats, and other types of verbal abuse?
Verbal Abuse As Grounds for PFA Order
The short answer is “yes”—but the process is not cut-and-dried. The judge is empowered with the authority to grant a PFA order on the grounds of verbal abuse alone, but no one can just waltz into a courtroom and tell the judge that someone has been yelling at them. The court needs to agree that the plaintiff is experiencing “reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury.” In layperson's terms, the person has to be afraid that the abuser is going to hurt them badly, and soon. What's more, they have to prove that your fear is founded. This is intended to prevent false accusations that are born of a desire for revenge or simply to screw up someone's life.
In order to determine whether or not the alleged abuse satisfies the requirement of “reasonable fear,” the court will want to know as much as possible about the situation. They'll ask the petitioner to provide information, including the type and nature of the threats or abuse, its context and what may have provoked the incident, and whether the defendant has a criminal background or history of violence.
Additionally, if the plaintiff can offer evidence such as video or audio recordings, text messages, emails, or any other form of written or verbal communication that demonstrates the threat, the court will evaluate those as well in making its decision.
The Process of Obtaining a PFA
To obtain a Protection from Abuse order, it is necessary to fill out and submit a form to the court. If the victim needs immediate protection at a time when the courts are closed, a law enforcement officer can facilitate contact with an on-duty judge, who will then issue an emergency protective order. Otherwise, the initial step after filing will be a temporary PFA.
This temporary order is valid for ten days, and in the meantime, the judge will have the defendant served with the order. They will also schedule a hearing. If the judge rules that there is a credible threat of violence or other grounds for legal protection, they will sign off on a permanent PFA order. That document can be valid for up to three years. In both cases, the order may be extended as circumstances deem necessary.
The Contents of Protection from Abuse Orders
The exact nature of the order will be determined by the specific circumstances. Most of them, however, are similar. A few of the terms that are almost always included a mandate that the defendant:
- Stop all abuse of the plaintiff
- Refrain from contacting the plaintiff by any means, including through third parties such as friends or family members.
- Stay away from the victim's home, workplace, and/or school
Sometimes the PFA will also set forth conditions regarding the custody of children, payment of child support, other types of financial support, and payment for losses incurred due to the abuse (including medical bills, moving expenses, and the like). The defendant may be ordered to vacate a shared residence, even if he or she is named on the lease or the home's deed. In addition, they may be ordered to continue paying for the residence's rent or mortgage.
As of 2019, a PFA order also requires the abuser to relinquish any firearms within 24 hours.
PFA Orders Are Serious
All parties need to respect the boundaries set forth in a Protection from Abuse order. They are serious instruments of the law that need to be taken seriously. This includes understanding that verbal abuse can be grounds for awarding a PFA order.
Do you have any questions, or would you like to learn more about your rights under the law? Contact attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm or call 888-535-3686.