The Protection from Abuse (PFA) order can provide legal protection for domestic abuse victims in Northampton County, Pennsylvania. It may also provide protection for the victim's children, and in some cases, it can name specific children to protect. The PFA order can sometimes cause confusion regarding custody because a Pennsylvania PFA can often legally address custody issues when children are involved.
What is the relationship between legal custody and restrictions from a PFA? What can a PFA do to your custody rights? If you or your children are victims of domestic abuse, how can a PFA be structured to give you all full protection? The Lento Law Firm has many years of proven experience helping people navigate the complexities of PFAs in Northampton County and other parts of Pennsylvania. We have assembled the following questions and answers to help you understand how PFAs can affect your custody rights.
What is a PFA? How does it work?
PFA stands for Protection From Abuse. This is a Pennsylvania-specific restraining order which provides legal protection against abuse or threat of abuse from family members or intimate partners. A PFA can only be filed against a household member, a spouse/dating partner, or the child's parent. The PFA directs the defendant (the person against whom it is filed) to stop harassing, stalking, or threatening the plaintiff (the one who filed it). Violating the PFA can lead to criminal charges.
In Pennsylvania, PFAs are flexible and can contain situation-specific language to offer full protection to victims. If you're served with a PFA, you may be prohibited from contacting the plaintiff (or their children), entering their workplace or school, or entering their home (even if it is also your home). The PFA may also order you to pay temporary support, reimburse the victim for any damage or healthcare costs incurred by the alleged abuse, and return any stolen items to the plaintiff. Finally, if children are involved, the PFA may contain specific language that affects your custody or visitation rights regarding your children.
What are the criteria for getting a PFA?
The Protection from Abuse Act in Pennsylvania defines eligibility factors for obtaining a PFA. First, a PFA can only be obtained against someone with whom the victim is in a familial or intimate relationship (e.g., spouse, domestic partner, dating relationships, household members, relatives by blood/marriage, etc.). The alleged abuser must also have behaved in a way consistent with the legal definitions of abuse (e.g., physical or sexual abuse, false imprisonment, threats, stalking, etc.). If these criteria don't apply, the abused may still qualify for other types of restraining orders in Pennsylvania.
If I need a PFA in Northampton County, how do I get one?
To obtain a PFA, you need to go to the Northampton County Courthouse, 669 Washington Pl., Easton, PA. Go to the Protection From Abuse Office on the lower level (Room L113). The filing hours are Monday to Friday, 8:00 AM to 2:00 PM. If you are in immediate danger and need an emergency PFA after hours, on holidays, or weekends, call 911 to be put in contact with the Magistrate Judge on duty.
What happens next if a PFA is filed against you?
Protection From Abuse often starts with an emergency or temporary PFA, especially if the plaintiff claims to be in imminent danger. The temporary PFA will be granted “ex parte” (without your presence), takes effect immediately, and lasts for up to 10 days pending a final hearing. You may have an attorney present to represent you during the final hearing and to present your side of the story and any corroborating evidence. If the judge decides to finalize the PFA, it will remain in effect for up to 3 years. You need to show up for the final hearing to present your side if you want to challenge the PFA; otherwise, the judge may rule summarily against you in your absence.
Is it possible for a PFA to prevent me from seeing my children?
Yes. When obtaining a PFA, the plaintiff can ask the judge to include restrictions on your ability to visit or making contact with the children. If the judge court agrees, you would be prohibited from visiting them while the PFA is in force.
What happens if I break the PFA custody restrictions?
Violating custody restrictions of a PFA is the same as violating the PFA itself. You may be charged with criminal contempt, which carries a penalty of up to 6 months in prison and a $1000 fine. The court can also extend the PFA order's duration if you are convicted of violating it—plus, if you have any current or pending custody hearings, your violation of the PFA may be used against you.
Can I challenge a PFA to regain access to my child?
If you have an emergency or temporary PFA against you, you won't be able to challenge that—you'll need to abide by its terms and refrain from making contact with your child. At the final hearing, however, you may raise a challenge to the PFA before it becomes finalized. (Having a good family law attorney can go a long way toward protecting your custody rights in these situations.) If the PFA is finalized, you may still challenge it by filing a motion for reconsideration within 10 days of the hearing. You may also appeal the decision to the Superior Court within 30 days.
Can a PFA be used to supersede existing child custody arrangements?
Yes, in some cases. The temporary PFA may override your parental custody rights until the final hearing if the court considers you likely to abuse the children or flee the area with them. However, if your children are not specifically named in the protection order, the court cannot revoke your custody rights concerning them unless the judge has reason to view you as a risk to their safety and well-being.
People do sometimes use Pennsylvania PFAs to take over temporary custody of their children, especially if they believe the children are in danger. You should contact a family lawyer immediately if you believe a PFA has incorrectly or unfairly revoked your custody rights.
Does a PFA exempt me from paying child support?
No. If you are divorced or separated from your spouse, a PFA does not alter your child support obligations. Additionally, the PFA may contain specific requirements for financial support, including:
- Health coverage
- Medical expenses caused by your abuse
- Rent or mortgage payments on the plaintiff's place of residence (even if you can no longer live there).
Can I get a PFA specifically on behalf of my child?
Yes. If your child has been abused or is under threat, you can request a PFA to protect them. A minor cannot file a PFA on their own behalf; a parent, relative, or guardian must do it for them. Otherwise, the process for obtaining a PFA in Northampton County is the same for both adults and minors.
What happens when my PFA expires? Can I get my custody rights back?
Yes, on certain conditions. If your PFA contains custody or visitation restrictions regarding your children, these restrictions will expire with the PFA, and you can see your kids again. However, you may have to renegotiate custody and visitation arrangements if these rights were specifically revoked by the PFA.
Can a PFA be used to grant custody if there is no other custody arrangement in place?
Yes. A PFA can be used if custody arrangements have not been established through other means. The temporary protection order can grant temporary custody to the plaintiff and deprive the defendant of custody if the child is under threat of abuse. A final PFA can also revoke the defendant's parental rights or grant partial custody and supervision in certain situations.
Can I sue for custody of my kids even if I'm under a PFA?
Yes, with conditions. If the children are not specifically listed under the PFA, there's no law hindering you from formally requesting custody. However, if they are specifically named, the court won't grant you custody because doing so would violate the PFA. Additionally, your past and present conduct are taken into consideration when determining custody arrangements, so the existence of a PFA order may affect the court's decision on whether to grant custody.
The intersection of PFAs and custody rights can be confusing because PFAs can address so many different issues, including child protection and custody. A good family law attorney can help you understand your rights regarding custody and PFAs and can help you raise a challenge to any unfair terms that affect your custody rights. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has unparalleled expertise and an excellent track record in helping clients navigate the complexities of PFAs in Northampton County and throughout Pennsylvania. Contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation.