Pennsylvania Protection from Abuse Orders: How Do They Work and How Do I Get One?

We all know that domestic violence is a serious issue. In Pennsylvania and across the U.S., lawmakers and law enforcement agencies struggle to prevent family and intimate partner violence and to keep children safe. According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, as many as one in four Pennsylvanians will experience some form of family violence.

As a result, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Protection from Abuse Act in 1990. The law creates a process for victims of domestic violence to seek protection from the Pennsylvania courts. If you obtain a Protection from Abuse order, or PFA, from the courts, it can prevent a potential abuser from approaching or contacting you and award temporary custody of minor children.

But, while it's great to know that a protective order from the court is an option, figuring out how to get one can be overwhelming. And then, how does it work daily to protect you once you have a PFA in place? Many of our clients have the same questions. So, in this article, we'll discuss the practical steps involved in getting a PFA in place and how it will work once you have one. But this isn't something you have to handle on your own. Experienced domestic violence and family attorneys at LLF Law Firm and its Family Law Team can help guide you through the process.

How Do I Get a PFA in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania's domestic violence statute describes the process you will use to obtain a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order from the court. The statute also describes the provisions the court can include in your PFA and the procedures and regulations you, the defendant, the police, and the court will follow during the PFA process. See Pa. Stat. 23 § 6101, et seq. (2018).

Who can get a PFA in Pennsylvania?

Under Pennsylvania law, to get a PFA, you must have a relationship with the defendant that qualifies under the domestic violence statute. The statute covers many "domestic relationships," including:

  • Spouses or former spouses
  • Parents who have a child together,
  • Current or former sexual or intimate partners,
  • Children and parents,
  • Family members related by blood,
  • Family members related by marriage or affinity,
  • Siblings, and
  • Current or former cohabitants

If you have any of these relationships with the defendant, you will likely qualify to apply for a PFA.

Where do I go to get a PFA?

In Pennsylvania, you can apply for a PFA with the courts, or you can apply for an emergency PFA at your local police station. If you call the police for a domestic violence situation, they will inform you of your options and help you get the process started, particularly if the courts are closed.

Applying for a PFA with the Police

Under Pennsylvania law, if you're the victim of a domestic violence incident, when the police get involved, they must give you notice of your right to file a protective order. The written notice will inform you of all the possible protections a PFA can contain:

"If you are the victim of domestic violence, you have the right to go to court and file a petition requesting an order for protection from domestic abuse pursuant to the Protection from Abuse Act (23 Pa.C.S. Ch. 61), which could include the following:

  1. An order restraining the abuser from further acts of abuse.
  2. An order directing the abuser to leave your household.
  3. An order preventing the abuser from entering your residence, school, business or place of employment.
  4. An order awarding you or the other parent temporary custody of or temporary visitation with your child or children.
  5. An order directing the abuser to pay support to you and the minor children if the abuser has a legal obligation to do so."

But the police can also assist you in filing a protective order, particularly if an emergency happens when the courts are closed. The police will connect you with a local on-call magisterial district judge to obtain emergency protection from abuse orders. These emergency orders are only good until the next business day when the court is open, so you will then need to go to court to file for a more permanent PFA order.

Applying for a PFA with the Court

To begin the PFA process with the courts, you will apply at your local county Court of Common Pleas in your county's courthouse. While each county courthouse may vary slightly, you will typically file your PFA application with the family court or another designated location. For example, in Philadelphia, you will file your application at either the Family Court, Domestic Violence Intake Unit, or at the Criminal Justice Center.

Court employees can also help you when you're ready to apply for a PFA. Under Pennsylvania law, they must provide "simplified forms and clerical assistance in English and Spanish" to help you write and file your petition for a PFA if you don't have an attorney. However, court employees cannot give you legal advice. The court must also give you "written and oral referrals, in English and Spanish," to legal services, domestic violence programs, or the bar referral service to help you find an attorney. While you don't have to have an attorney represent you in obtaining a PFA, an experienced domestic violence and protective order attorney can help navigate the system, prepare for hearings, collect evidence, help you understand your options, and obtain the best possible results for you.

How do I fill out the application?

Fortunately, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has made filling out the PFA application as easy as possible. Under Pennsylvania Code Rule 1905 forms, you can check the appropriate boxes for your situation, leaving little guesswork. The questions on the application include the following:

  • Your name,
  • Whether you're filling out the form for yourself or someone else,
  • The names of all the people seeking protection under the order, including you and any minor children,
  • Your address and whether it is confidential,
  • Where you believe the defendant lives, their social security number, if known, their date of birth, and their place of employment,
  • Whether you believe the defendant works in the firearms industry or must carry a firearm for work,
  • Your relationship with the defendant,
  • Whether the defendant is under 18,
  • Whether you and the defendant have been involved in a divorce, custody, or support action in court and whether you have been involved in a PFA action in court in the past,
  • Whether the defendant has been a criminal defendant and whether they are on probation,
  • Your minor children and where they live, unless it's confidential,
  • Whether there is an existing custody agreement for minor children that you and the defendant share,
  • If you're seeking custody as part of the PFA, where the children have lived for the last five years and with whom,
  • Any other people that may have or claim a right to custody of the children,
  • The names of the minor children who live with you,
  • The facts of the most recent domestic violence incident, including the date, time, place, and details of the incident,
  • For prior acts of domestic violence, the details of those acts including as much detail as possible, including dates, injuries, threats, and stalking,
  • Whether the defendant has used or threatened to use any weapons against you or your minor children, including details,
  • Whether the defendant owns or possesses any firearms, weapons, ammunition, or a firearms license,
  • Whether you're requesting that the court order the defendant to relinquish those weapons,
  • The sheriff or police department where the defendant lives, that should receive a copy of the order,
  • Whether you're asking the court to remove the defendant from a residence, including who owns the residence and who rents it,
  • Whether the defendant owes a duty of support to you and your minor children,
  • Whether you've suffered any out-of-pocket financial losses as a result of the defendant's abuse, including details and amounts,

You can then request specific relief on the application by selecting the following options in your court order:

  • Request that the defendant refrain from abusing, threatening, harassing, or stalking you and any minor children,
  • Evict or exclude the defendant from your residence and prevent the defendant from entering any temporary or permanent residence that you have,
  • Require the defendant to provide you and any minor children with other suitable housing,
  • Award temporary custody and request restrictions on the defendant's contact with the children,
  • Prevent the defendant from contacting you and any minor children in person, by writing, by telephone, personally, or through any third party, including your school, business, or place of employment, except when the court finds it necessary for partial custody or visitation,
  • Prohibit the defendant from having any contact with your relatives or minor children except as the court finds necessary for partial custody or visitation,
  • Order the defendant to relinquish some or all of the firearms listed temporarily,
  • Order the defendant to pay temporary support to you and the minor children, including medical support and paying the rent or mortgage,
  • Order the defendant to pay any of your reasonable financial losses suffered because of the abuse,
  • Order the defendant to pay the costs of the PFA action,
  • Order any additional relief,
  • Order the police to serve the petition and any orders on the defendant, and
  • Order the defendant to pay your reasonable attorney's fees.

How Will My First Hearing Work?

Once you've completed your PFA application, you will have an ex parte hearing with a judge. Ex parte means that the defendant won't be at the hearing and does not have the right to attend. In your hearing, the judge will ask you about the facts of your case and look at the domestic violence allegations in your application. You can bring your attorney.

If the judge believes that there was an act of domestic violence, you and the defendant have a qualifying relationship, and an order is necessary to prevent further acts of domestic violence, they will grant a temporary PFA. A temporary PFA will only remain in place until the date the judge sets for a final PFA hearing, typically about ten business days.

How Does My Temporary PFA Work?

Your temporary PFA can have a wide variety of provisions to protect and support you until the final hearing. Provisions of a temporary PFA can include:

  • Ordering the defendant not to abuse, approach, or contact you or your minor children,
  • Ordering the defendant from your shared home,
  • Ordering the defendant to stay away from your home, your work, your school, or any places you typically frequent,
  • Granting temporary custody and visitation of your minor children,
  • Ordering the defendant to pay temporary financial support such as rent, the mortgage, child support, spousal support, health insurance, or other ongoing financial obligations,
  • Ordering the defendant to relinquish any firearms, ammunition, or other weapons they may possess, and
  • Any other reasonable temporary relief you request.

The temporary order will only remain in place until your final hearing, typically within ten business days after issuance.

How Does the Final PFA Hearing Work?

The court will notify the defendant of the final hearing, and they will have the right to appear, present witnesses and evidence, and cross-examine your witnesses. This is why it's essential that you have an experienced PFA attorney by your side. At the final PFA hearing, you will have the burden of proof. Having the burden of proof means you must prove your abuse allegation against the defendant by a "preponderance of the evidence." Before granting a final PFA, the judge must find that:

  • The parties have a qualifying domestic relationship and
  • An act of domestic violence occurred.

To prove that an act of domestic violence happened, you have several options. You and your lawyer can prove the allegation of abuse using criminal convictions, medical and physical records, eyewitnesses, and evidence.

Criminal Conviction

If the defendant already has a conviction for domestic violence, this is the strongest proof you and your attorney can offer at the PFA hearing. If the charges are still pending, the court may issue a PFA through the end of the trial, with the possibility of extending it, unless you present additional evidence at your final PFA hearing.

Pennsylvania law defines "abuse" as:

(1) Attempting to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault or incest with or without a deadly weapon; (2) Placing another in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury; (3) The infliction of false imprisonment pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2903; (4) Physically or sexually abusing minor children, including such terms as defined in Chapter 63; and (5) knowingly engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts toward another person, including following the person, without proper authority, under the circumstances which place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury.

23 Pa.C.S.A. §6102.

A wide range of crimes count as domestic violence in Pennsylvania, including:

  • Bodily injury,
  • Serious bodily injury,
  • Putting another in fear of imminent serious bodily injury,
  • Engaging in a repeated course of conduct that puts someone in reasonable fear of bodily injury.
  • Sexual assault,
  • Incest,
  • Rape,
  • Indecent assault,
  • Statutory sexual assault,
  • Physical or sexual abuse of a minor, and
  • False imprisonment.

Medical Records

If the defendant isn't facing domestic violence charges, you'll need to present additional evidence that an act of abuse happened. Any medical records, photographs, x-rays, videos, or other physical evidence of your injuries will provide strong evidence.

Eyewitness or Other Evidence

You can still present testimony from eyewitnesses or other documentation without evidence of physical injuries or something similar. Obviously, neutral eyewitnesses or objective evidence are stronger than evidence from biased witnesses like your friends and family. You could also present voicemails the defendant left for you, texts, emails, social media comments or messages, video from home security devices, and similar evidence. However, you can also present evidence from friends and family members if they witnessed the defendant's abuse or its effects.

How Does a PFA Work Once in Place?

The final PFA order will remain in place for up to three years. The court can extend it under some circumstances. For example, if the defendant continues to violate the order or remains a threat to the defendant, the judge may extend the order.

Provisions that can be in a PFA

Your final protection order can contain many of the same provisions as the temporary PFA. However, the court may be more likely to order some forms of relief in a final PFA because the defendant has the opportunity to appear at the final hearing with an attorney. The specifics of your final PFA will vary from case to case. However, almost all orders will prohibit the defendant from contacting you or approaching you in person or online. The order will also typically prevent the defendant from texting, calling, emailing, messaging you, or commenting on your social media accounts. The order will also likely prevent the defendant from coming near your home, your office or place of work, your school, your children's school, or any other places you typically frequent.

The court's order may also include provisions:

  • Directing the defendant to refrain from harming or abusing you or your minor children,
  • Giving you possession of the family home or residence by evicting the defendant and restoring your possession if you jointly own or lease the home,
  • Giving you possession of the residence or home by evicting the defendant or restoring your possession if the defendant has a duty to support you and minor children living in the home, even if the defendant is the sole owner or lessee.
  • With your consent, ordering the defendant to provide suitable alternate housing for you and any minor children,
  • Awarding temporary custody of minor children or setting up temporary visitation for your minor children.

See Pa. Stat. 23 § 6108 (2018).

The court may also order the defendant to pay you and your minor children financial support as part of the final PFA:

(5) After a hearing in accordance with section 6107(a), directing the defendant to pay financial support to those persons the defendant has a duty to support, requiring the defendant, under sections 4324 (relating to inclusion of medical support) and 4326 (relating to mandatory inclusion of child medical support), to provide health coverage for the minor child and spouse, directing the defendant to pay all of the unreimbursed medical expenses of a spouse or minor child of the defendant to the provider or to the plaintiff when he or she has paid for the medical treatment, and directing the defendant to make or continue to make rent or mortgage payments on the residence of the plaintiff to the extent that the defendant has a duty to support the plaintiff or other dependent household members. The support order shall be temporary, and any beneficiary of the order must file a complaint for support under the provisions of Chapters 43 (relating to support matters generally) and 45 (relating to reciprocal enforcement of support orders) within two weeks of the date of the issuance of the protection order. If a complaint for support is not filed, that portion of the protection order requiring the defendant to pay support is void. When there is a subsequent ruling on a complaint for support, the portion of the protection order requiring the defendant to pay support expires.

(6) Prohibiting the defendant from having any contact with the plaintiff or minor children, including, but not limited to, restraining the defendant from entering the place of employment or business or school of the plaintiff or minor children and from harassing the plaintiff or plaintiff's relatives or minor children. (Id.)

The court may also include a provision that orders that the defendant relinquish their firearms and prohibits them from owning or possessing them while the PFA is in place. The provision may:

(7) Prohibit[…] the defendant from acquiring or possessing any firearm for the duration of the order, ordering the defendant to temporarily relinquish to the sheriff or the appropriate law enforcement agency any firearms under the defendant's possession or control, and requiring the defendant to relinquish to the sheriff or the appropriate law enforcement agency any firearm license issued under section 6108.3 (relating to relinquishment to third party for safekeeping) or 18 Pa.C.S. § 6106 (relating to firearms not to be carried without a license) or 6109 (relating to licenses) the defendant may possess. The court may also order the defendant to relinquish the defendant's other weapons or ammunition that have been used or been threatened to be used in an incident of abuse against the plaintiff or the minor children.[….]

(7.1) If the defendant is a licensed firearms dealer, ordering the defendant to follow such restrictions as the court may require concerning the conduct of his business, which may include ordering the defendant to relinquish any Federal or State license for the sale, manufacture or importation of firearms as well as firearms in the defendant's business inventory. In restricting the defendant pursuant to this paragraph, the court shall make a reasonable effort to preserve the financial assets of the defendant's business while fulfilling the goals of this chapter. (Id.)

The PFA can also direct the defendant to pay reparations or losses the plaintiff suffered because of the abuse. The PFA order may direct the defendant to pay you for "reasonable losses suffered as a result of the abuse." This might include:

  • Medical and dental expenses,
  • Relocation or moving expenses,
  • Counseling expenses,
  • Loss of earnings, wages, or support,
  • The costs of repairing or replacing real or personal property damaged, destroyed, or stolen by the defendant or at the direction of the defendant,
  • Any other out-of-pocket losses you might have for injuries you sustained as a result of the abuse, and
  • Reasonable attorney fees. (See id.)

Even though the PFA may order reimbursement of these costs, this won't be a bar to litigation you may bring against the defendant for civil damages for injuries you have from the defendant's actions, abuse, or the defendant's violations of the court order.

In addition to keeping the defendant from contacting or approaching you, your home, work, or school, the PFA can also order the defendant not to harass, approach, or stalk your friends and family. (See id.)

The judge also has some wide latitude to grant any additional relief you may seek.

The Prothonotary's Office

After the court issues the PFA, the defendant will have to pay any fees incurred for the PFA to the Prothonotary's Office in your courthouse. The fees will include the costs for your local sheriff's office to serve the order. The court may turn them over to a collection agency if the defendant doesn't pay the fees. However, as the plaintiff, you won't be responsible for the court fees for your PFA. The Prothonotary's Office will also send a copy of the order to the state police for inclusion in the state's domestic violence database.

You Need an Attorney by Your Side

While the court has a lot of leeway to grant wide-reaching provisions to protect you and your children, provide financial support, order custody and visitation, and provide reimbursement for damages, you shouldn't assume that these will be automatic. You'll need a skilled attorney by your side to protect your rights. Remember, the defendant will likely bring an attorney to the hearing to refute your evidence, witnesses, and arguments.

What Happens if the Defendant Violates the PFA?

Under Pennsylvania law, the state police must maintain a domestic violence database with information from all people with a PFA against them. The database includes the following:

  • The names of the protected parties, including the plaintiff,
  • The name and address of the defendant,
  • The social security number and date of birth of the defendant,
  • The relationship between the plaintiff and defendant,
  • When the court entered the order,
  • When the PFA expires,
  • The relief contained in the PFA, including any emergency relief granted,
  • The judicial district where the court entered the order,
  • Whether or not the court ordered the defendant to relinquish any or all firearms, ammunition, and other weapons.

A protection from abuse order is a civil order of the court, not a criminal order or criminal sanction. However, if the defendant violates the PFA, it does become a criminal matter. Even if the defendant claims to have mistakenly violated the PFA, the police can arrest them. It's important to be sure that you know all the provisions of your PFA to ensure you can protect yourself.

You can report violations to the police, along with any evidence you may have, and the police will arrest the defendant with a credible accusation of a PFA violation. If the court finds the defendant guilty of violating the PFA against you, the defendant can receive up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. After a conviction, the defendant will also have a criminal record for "indirect criminal contempt." If the defendant violates other provisions of the PFA, such as the financial support or child custody provisions, you can enforce them in family court.

Hire an Experienced Pennsylvania Domestic Violence Attorney

Whether you're trying to protect your family with a Protection from Abuse order in Pennsylvania or defending yourself against allegations of abuse, it's a serious matter with long-term consequences for you and your family. This isn't a legal matter you should try to handle on your own. Our Family Law Team has been helping people with protective orders and domestic violence allegations for years. Find out how we can help you too. Give the LLF Law Firm a call today at 888.535.3686 to schedule your consultation, or contact us online.

Contact a skilled Family Law Team Today!

The LLF Law Firm has unparalleled experience practicing Family Law in Pennsylvania. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you and your family, contact our offices today. Our Family Law Team will go above and beyond the needs for any client and fight for what is fair.

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