Domestic violence is a serious issue in communities across Pennsylvania. In response, in 1990, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Protection from Abuse Act. The law created a process to protect victims of domestic violence from their abusers. The law allows victims of domestic violence to apply for a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order from the court to prevent an abuser from contacting them or thDeir children. See Pa. Stat. 23 § 6101, et seq. (2018).
What is a Protection from Abuse Order?
Pennsylvania's Protection from Abuse Act allows victims to apply for a court order of protection, sometimes called a restraining order or protective order in other states. The law sets out the procedures for getting a protection from abuse (PFA) order, the specific provisions a PFA can contain, and many of the regulations that the parties, the court, and the police must follow during the process. See Pa. Stat. 23 § 6101, et seq. (2018). First, a judge will order a temporary PFA that remains in force until the final hearing in approximately ten days. At the final hearing, both parties may present evidence and witnesses in support of their cases. However, the plaintiff must show by a preponderance of the evidence that abuse occurred.
The law created Pennsylvania PFAs for those in family or intimate relationships, including:
- Current or former spouses, intimate partners, and domestic partners
- Those currently or formerly in a dating relationship
- Parents and children
- People related by blood or marriage, including siblings
- Those with a child together
Strangers, co-workers, neighbors, and those who don't have the above family relationships typically don't qualify for PFAs in Pennsylvania.
Where Do PFA and Custody Hearings Happen in Lebanon County?
In Lebanon County, judges hear PFA applications and custody hearings in the Family Division of the Court of Common Pleas. The Lebanon County Courthouse is open from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm.
Lebanon County Courthouse
400 S. 8th Street
Lebanon, PA 17042
How Do PFAs Work in Lebanon County?
The process for obtaining a PFA is similar across Pennsylvania. In Lebanon County:
- The complainant or plaintiff applies for a temporary PFA with the Family Division.
- The police serve the defendant the temporary PFA and a notification of the hearing date for the final PFA.
- Both parties may participate in the final hearing, and the judge will decide whether to issue a final PFA.
Can I Still See My Kids with a PFA in Place?
Depending on the provisions of the PFA, you may still be able to continue seeing your kids. While both temporary and final PFAs can contain temporary custody and visitation provisions, the judge reviewing the PFA application will typically leave final custody decisions to the family court. In some cases, the temporary PFA issues against you may prevent you from seeing your children until the court resolves the final PFA hearing.
How Does a Judge Determine Custody in a PFA Hearing?
In a PFA hearing, a Pennsylvania court will ask:
- Has the defendant abused or threatened the child?
- Has the defendant violated a PFA in the last two years?
For more permanent custody decisions, the family court must decide the “best interests of the child.” As part of this evaluation, the family court will make your child's safety a priority. See 23 Pa.C.S. § 5328(a) (2013). The court will consider factors such as:
- Whether any abuse has happened in the home
- Whether either parent or a member of their household has a history of domestic violence, sexual assault, or certain other violent crimes
- Which party can ensure the child's physical and emotional safety
- Each parent's relationship with the child and the parenting duties they perform
- The parent that can provide the most loving and stable home
- Any history of drug or alcohol abuse of either parent or members of their household
- The distance between the parents' homes
- Sibling relationships in each home
- Which parent is most likely to ensure that the child sees the other parent
- The mental and physical condition of each parent
- Any other relevant factors
See id. at § 5328(b).
What Happens if I Violate a Protection from Abuse Order?
A PFA order is a civil matter but violating a PFA is a criminal offense in Pennsylvania. You can be arrested, held in criminal contempt of court, serve six months in jail, and pay up to a $1,000 fine. You will also have a criminal record for “indirect criminal contempt.” Even minor or inadvertent violations can result in a criminal charge.
If you violate the custody provisions of a PFA, the plaintiff can file a petition for civil contempt. If found guilty, you could face up to six months in jail. Moreover, willfully violating a court order regarding custody may affect any permanent decisions about parental rights made by the family court.
Can I Get Custody Back After the PFA Expires?
You may be able to get custody back after the PFA against you expires. In Pennsylvania, PFAs can remain in place for up to three years. After the period of restriction in the PFA, it will expire. If you weren't prohibited from seeing your children before, you could see them again. However, you should be careful to strictly follow the provisions of the PFA while it remains in place. If you violate the order, the plaintiff may ask the court to renew the PFA for another three years.
Hire an Experienced PFA Attorney
If you're facing a protection from abuse order in Pennsylvania, you need an experienced family law attorney by your side. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has helped many Lebanon County families through custody and visitation disputes and litigation related to protection from abuse orders. He can help you too. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or schedule an appointment online.