In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, victims of domestic abuse may obtain legal protection from their abusers through a Protection from Abuse order (or PFA). The PFA can also protect the victim's child from abuse, if necessary. In certain cases, this can create some confusion regarding custody, especially if current custody orders are in place. How can a PFA affect your custody rights concerning your children? If you are a victim of domestic abuse, can a PFA override your partner's custody rights? Is seeing your kids a violation of your PFA? To help you understand more about how PFAs may affect your custody rights in Philadelphia County, the Lento Law Firm has provided answers to the following common questions.
What is a PFA?
A PFA is a specific type of restraining order in Pennsylvania that provides legal protection for victims of domestic violence against abuse or threats of abuse. PFAs are designed only to protect abuse within intimate or familial relationships (e.g., spouses, household members, blood relatives, etc.). There are other types of restraining orders to protect against abuse outside of these relationships. The person filing the PFA is the plaintiff, and the person against whom the PFA is filed is the defendant.
A PFA orders the defendant to stop harassment, threats, or stalking of the plaintiff on the pain of criminal charges. The PFA can do any or all of the following functions:
- Prevent the defendant from having contact or attempted to have contact with the plaintiff and/or the children
- Prevent the defendant from gaining entry to the plaintiff's residence, even if the two of them share it.
- Order the defendant to pay temporary support and/or reimburse the plaintiff for expenses incurred as a result of the abuse.
- Order the defendant to return any personal property taken from the plaintiff.
Who is eligible to obtain a PFA?
Under the terms of the Protection from Abuse Act, to be eligible for protection under a PFA, the plaintiff must:
- Be in a familial or intimate relationship with the alleged abuser (e.g., spouse, ex-spouse, dating partner, domestic partner, live-in relative by blood or marriage, etc.).
- Claim that the actions of the defendant meet the criteria for “abuse” (e.g., physical abuse, sexual abuse, threats of imminent abuse, stalking).
Where and how do I request PFA in Philadelphia County?
Petitions for PFAs in Philadelphia are filed Monday through Friday between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm at the Philadelphia Family Court, 1501 Arch Street in Philadelphia, 8th Floor (Domestic Violence Intake Unit). For emergency petitions on weekends, holidays, or after hours, you can request an emergency PFA at the Criminal Justice Center, 1301 Filbert Street, Room B-03. There is no charge to file a request for a PFA.
I've been served with a PFA. What happens now?
Once you're served with a PFA, you are immediately bound by its terms. If the defendant feels you are an imminent threat to them or their children, the court may grant an emergency or temporary PFA, which is issued “ex parte” (without your presence) and prohibits you from contacting the named people in the PFA for up to 10 days. You'll be notified of a date/time for the final PFA hearing, where you will have the option to present your side of the story. You can have an attorney represent you at this hearing. If the judge finds that the reasons for the PFA are valid, the PFA will become permanent for up to three years unless it's later canceled or overturned. If you fail to appear for your final PFA hearing, the judge may rule summarily against you.
If there is no emergency or temporary PFA, the terms of the PFA won't go into effect until after the final hearing (if the judge finalizes it).
Where do I go for the PFA hearing if I'm served with a PFA in Philadelphia?
In Philadelphia, final PFA hearings are held at the Domestic Relations Division of Philadelphia Family Court, located at 1501 Arch St. The specific date and time of your hearing will appear on the paperwork you are served with.
What happens if my ex obtains a PFA against me? Can it impact my ability to see my kids?
Yes, it might. If you have one or more children together, the PFA permits the plaintiff to request limitations on you visiting or contacting the child(ren)—or indeed, banning you from seeing or talking to them at all. If the court affirms this request, it will be against the law for you to violate the restrictions put in place by the PFA.
Will my child's school be made aware of the PFA against me?
Yes. If the child is named in the protection orders, the Philadelphia County Family Court will notify the child's school. The school will take all necessary steps to ensure that you do not contact your children if the PFA prohibits it.
What are my options for challenging the PFA to regain access to my kids?
If a temporary or emergency PFA has been issued, you have to abide by its terms—period. If the PFA says you can't see the children, you can't challenge it. You can, however, raise a challenge to the custody provisions at the final PFA hearing, which should happen within 10 days of the emergency PFA. If the PFA is uncalled for and you believe you're being wrongfully barred from your children, hiring a good family law attorney can greatly improve your chances of a successful challenge. If the judge approves the final PFA, you still may be able to challenge it, either by filing a motion for reconsideration within 10 days or by filing an appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania within 30 days.
What happens if I don't comply with the custody restrictions of the PFA?
Charges of criminal contempt could be brought against you if you break any terms of the PFA. You may be sentenced to up to six months imprisonment and/or a $1,000 fine. If you are found guilty of violating the PFA, the judge might also extend the length of the PFA order. Violating the PFA could also work against you in any ongoing custody hearings with your ex.
Can a PFA override existing child custody orders?
In some cases, yes. A temporary PFA can immediately revoke custody rights if the court is convinced you are either a threat to the children or that you might try to flee with the children before the final PFA hearing. For the final PFA, however, unless your children are specifically named in the protection order, the court cannot revoke your custody rights unless it believes you are likely to abuse the children.
PFAs can be used to temporarily take over custody of children by parents who don't want to go through the full custody process or if a parent believes their child is in imminent danger. If you feel a PFA has been used inappropriately to bypass your custody rights, consult a family law attorney to discuss your options.
Am I still responsible for child support payments if a PFA revokes my custody rights?
Yes. Any requirements upon you to provide child support will remain in effect unless you petition the courts to change them. In addition, the PFA itself may place additional requirements on you for financial support that may or may not be included in your child support obligations, including paying for healthcare costs resulting from the abuse. If you lived at home and the PFA required you to move, you may also still be held responsible to make the rent or mortgage payments even though you can't live there anymore.
For the financial terms of a PFA to become permanent, however, the plaintiff must file a separate support complaint within two weeks of the effective date of the PFA. Otherwise, the PFA's financial provisions will be null and unenforceable.
When a PFA expires, do I automatically get my custody rights back?
It depends on the PFA itself. If the order simply prohibited you from seeing your children during the term of the PFA, you're no longer bound by the PFA when it expires. However, if the PFA specifically revoked your custody visitation rights, you may need to re-negotiate these arrangements once the PFA expires.
Is it possible for a PFA to grant custody without a pre-existing custody order?
Yes. If there are no current custody arrangements, a PFA may specify them. It may also award temporary custody to the plaintiff if the alleged abuse included the children. The PFA may additionally be used to cancel the defendant's custody rights and grant partial custody or supervised visits under certain conditions.
Because PFAs in Pennsylvania have so much latitude for addressing questions of custody, it can be confusing to know how a PFA intersects with your existing custody rights. An experienced family law attorney can help you understand your rights regarding PFAs in Philadelphia County, as well as help you challenge unfair provisions during and even after the final PFA hearing. Joseph D. Lento is an experienced Pennsylvania family law attorney who has helped his clients navigate complicated PFA and custody issues. To schedule a consultation, please contact the Lento Law Firm today at (888) 535-3686.