Pennsylvania's Protection from Abuse order (PFA) helps victims of domestic abuse to seek legal protection from their abusers. The PFA order can also protect the victim's child from abuse in some cases, even naming a specific child or children to be protected. This may lead to questions regarding custody. The court in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, can legally address custody issues through a PFA.
If you feel the need to file a PFA to protect yourself or your children—or if you've been served with a PFA that affects your custody rights—the Lento Law Firm has compiled the following common questions and answers to address how PFAs can affect custody rights in Lehigh County.
What is a PFA?
PFA is an abbreviation for Protection from Abuse. It's a specific type of restraining order in Pennsylvania that provides legal protection against abuse or threat of abuse. A PFA can only be filed against a household member, an intimate partner, or the child's co-parent. The PFA directs the defendant (the person against whom it is filed) to end harassment, threats, or stalking of the plaintiff (the person who filed the PFA).
The PFA can perform any or all of these functions:
- Forbid the defendant from contact or attempted contact with the plaintiff and/or their children
- Stop the defendant from entering the plaintiff's house, even if they share one, as well as their school, place of business, or home
- Demand that the defendant reimburse the plaintiff for any expenses incurred in the course of the abuse
- Ordain the defendant to pay temporary support
- Order the defendant to return any stolen personal property to the plaintiff
What are the requirements for obtaining a PFA?
There are basically two factors that determine eligibility for a PFA: The type of abuse and the person's relationship with the alleged abuser.
Type of abuse: The Protection from Abuse Act outlines certain behaviors that qualify as abuse, which include physical abuse, sexual abuse, false imprisonment, threats of abuse, stalking, etc.
Relationship with the abuser: A PFA only protects victims within certain familial or intimate relationships with the abuser. These include spouses, ex-spouses, domestic partners, dating relationships, and relatives by marriage or blood.
Where do I file a PFA in Lehigh County?
In Lehigh County, you file a PFA in the Protection from Abuse Department at the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas. The courthouse is located at 455 West Hamilton Street, Allentown, PA 18101. The PFA Department is in Room 423, and filing hours are between 8:00 am and 2:00 pm Monday-Friday.
If I'm served with a PFA, where will the PFA hearing take place?
PFA hearings take place at the Lehigh County Courthouse in Allentown. The court determines the date and time of the hearing. If you're served with a PFA, the order will state the date, time, and location of your hearing.
If my ex gets a PFA against me, can it affect my ability to see my children?
Possibly. A PFA allows an individual to request restrictions on visiting or contacting their children. If your ex wishes to limit your contact with your children and the court agrees, it would be a violation of the PFA to visit your children.
What happens if I break the custody provisions of a PFA order in Lehigh County?
If you violate any of the terms of the PFA, including any visitation or custody restrictions, you could be charged with criminal contempt of court. A penalty of up to six months imprisonment and a $1,000 fine could be imposed. The court may also extend the length of a PFA order if you are convicted of violating the PFA. If you have other pending court cases or custody hearings, your violation of the PFA can be used as evidence against you.
Is my child's school notified of the PFA against me?
Yes. If the child is listed in the protection order, the Lehigh County Family Court will report a PFA to the school. You may not contact your children at the school if the PFA prohibits it, and the school must take appropriate steps to prevent you from doing so.
If a PFA is filed against me in Lehigh County, what can I expect?
If your significant other believes they or the children are in imminent danger from you, they can petition the Lehigh County Court for a temporary or emergency PFA, which would be issued “ex parte” (meaning without your presence). This PFA goes into effect immediately and lasts up to 10 days, pending a final hearing. At the final hearing, you can present your own evidence and have an attorney present to represent you. If the judge is convinced that there is a legitimate need for the PFA, the PFA will become final, lasting up to three years unless it is overturned or rescinded. If you fail to show up for the final hearing, the judge may rule summarily against you by default and finalize the PFA.
Can I challenge a PFA in order to see my children again?
If the temporary PFA forbids you from seeing your children, you won't be able to challenge it; you will have to keep away from them until the final hearing (typically within 10 days). At the final hearing, you'll have the opportunity to challenge the PFA and defend yourself. Hiring a family law attorney will significantly increase your chances of a favorable outcome at This hearing.
If the judge finalizes the PFA, you can still challenge it in one of two ways:
- Within 10 days of the hearing, you can file a motion for reconsideration.
- Within 30 days of the hearing, you may file an appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.
Can a PFA be used to override child custody orders?
A PFA may supersede pre-existing custody orders in certain cases. For example, temporary PFA can rescind your custody rights if it believes you are likely to abuse or remove the children from the jurisdiction before the final hearing. However, if your children are not named in the protection order, the court can only revoke your custody rights if it believes you are likely to inflict abuse upon the children.
People may use a PFA as a way to temporarily take custody of their children without having to go through the entire custody process. If a parent feels their child is in imminent danger, they might also resort to a PFA. You should immediately seek to reverse a protection order that has wrongfully taken away your visitation or custody rights.
If I'm served with a PFA, am I still responsible for paying child support?
Yes, possibly. If you are separated from your significant other and are already supposed to pay child support, a PFA won't override that responsibility. Additionally, a PFA can specifically require you to provide financial support for the plaintiff and their children. You might be mandated to pay for health coverage, rent or mortgage payments, any medical costs incurred by your alleged abuse, and even the plaintiff's court costs and attorney fees. Furthermore, if you were living at home and the PFA forces you to leave, you may still need to cover your rent or mortgage payments.
That being said, for the financial provisions provided by a PFA to become permanent, the plaintiff will have to file a support complaint within two weeks of the effective date of the PFA. Otherwise, the financial provisions of the PFA will become null and void.
Is it possible to get a PFA on behalf of my child?
Yes. Minors can't file a PFA by themselves; a parent, relative, household member, or guardian must request it on their behalf. The abuser must be a household member, a sexual or romantic partner, or a family member. The process for obtaining protection is the same for minors as it is for adults.
Can I get my custody rights back when a PFA expires?
Possibly. Once the PFA expires, you are no longer bound by the restrictions it imposes on you. If you were not prohibited from seeing your children before the PFA, you may see them again when the PFA expires. If your custody rights were rescinded as part of the protection order, you may need to re-negotiate custody and visitation arrangements.
Can I file a PFA during a custody proceeding?
Yes. If you and your child's other parent are in the middle of custody proceedings with Lehigh County, you can file a PFA against the other parent if there's been abuse or risk of imminent abuse. A custody order may not provide the protection you and your children need, so a PFA could be necessary. Also, the court cannot deny the PFA order because it would give one parent custody advantage. If you petition for a PFA and provide adequate evidence for it, your ongoing custody or divorce proceeding shouldn't affect it.
Can a PFA grant custody if there's no pre-existing custody order?
Yes. If no custody arrangements are currently in place, a PFA can specify them. The protection order can grant temporary custody to the plaintiff and deny custody to the defendant if the abuse in question involves the two parties' children. The PFA can also rescind the defendant's custody rights or grant partial custody or supervised visitation under specified conditions.
Can I file for custody if I'm under a PFA order?
Yes—provided the children are not specifically named as under the protection of the PFA. If your petition conflicts with the terms of the PFA order, the court cannot grant you custody as it would violate the PFA. Another consideration: a PFA can negatively affect your petition for custody because one of the factors for granting custody is your past and present conduct. Since a PFA suggests abuse, it could affect the court's decision to grant custody.
As you can tell, there's quite a bit of overlap between PFAs and custody rights in Pennsylvania, and it's not always easy to determine how they overlap legally. Hiring a good Family Law attorney can go a long way toward helping you sort out questions about PFAs and how they affect custody rights. A good PA Family Law attorney can also help you present a compelling defense at a PFA hearing, challenge some or all the terms of the PFA, and hopefully protect your custody rights in the process.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has unparalleled experience helping clients navigate PFAs and custody proceedings in Lehigh County, PA. Contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to schedule an initial consultation.