Domestic violence is a problem across the U.S., and Pennsylvania is no exception. Pennsylvania legislature passed the Protection from Abuse Act in 1990 to address this problem. The law created a legal process to protect domestic or sexual violence victims from abusers. Under this law, victims of domestic violence and certain other crimes can apply for a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order to protect themselves from their abusers. See Pa. Stat. 23 § 6101, et seq. (2018).
What is a Protection from Abuse Order?
Under the Protection from Abuse Act, a court can issue a court order of protection for victims of domestic violence. In Pennsylvania, this order is called a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order but is also known as a restraining order or a protective order in many other states. This statute sets procedures to get a PFA from the court, what the court can include in a PFA, and the process the parties, the court, and police must follow to obtain the order. See Pa. Stat. 23 § 6101, et seq. (2018).
Pennsylvania law allows for two types of PFAs, both temporary and final. A judge issues a temporary PFA for only about ten days until the final hearing. At the final hearing, both parties have the chance to present evidence and witnesses to support their stories. However, the plaintiff must show by a “preponderance of the evidence” that domestic violence occurred.
PFAs are only available for people dealing with domestic violence in the family or intimate relationships. PFAs aren't permitted for strangers, co-workers, neighbors, or other relationships. Relationships that qualify for PFAs include:
- Current or former spouses
- Domestic partners and couples who lived together
- Same-sex couples
- Parents and children
- Other family members related by blood or marriage, including siblings
- Current or former intimate partners, or people who dated
- Those who share a child.
Where Do PFA and Custody Hearings Happen in Monroe County?
In Monroe County, protections from abuse orders and custody hearings happen in family court in the Monroe County Court of Common Pleas. The courthouse is open from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm.
Monroe County Court
610 Monroe Street
Stroudsburg, PA 18360
How Do PFAs Work in Monroe County?
The process for applying for a PFA is similar in most counties across Pennsylvania. In Monroe County:
- The applicant asks for a temporary PFA from the court.
- If the court issues a temporary PFA, the police will serve the defendant with a copy of the order and the date for the final hearing.
- Both parties participate in the final PFA hearing before a judge.
- The court decides whether a final PFA is necessary to protect the plaintiff and any children for up to three years.
- If the judge issues a final PFA, it can remain in place for up to three years.
Can I Still See My Kids with a Protection from Abuse Order in Place?
Whether you can see your kids when a PFA is in place depends on the specific provisions of the PFA. If the judge reviewing the temporary PFA application believes that abuse allegations are credible, the PFA may prevent you from seeing your kids until the court resolves the final PFA hearing.
During the final PFA hearing, if the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that abuse occurred, the judge may include custody provisions preventing you from seeing your children while the PFA is in force. The final PFA provisions will take precedence over any existing child custody or visitation order and will remain in place for the term of the PFA, up to three years.
How Does a Judge Determine Custody in a PFA Hearing?
Under Pennsylvania law, the family court makes decisions about custody in the “best interests of the child.” However, the most important consideration will be the child's safety. See 23 Pa.C.S. § 5328(a) (2013). The court will consider:
- Which party is most likely to encourage contact between the child and the other party, in the absence of a PFA preventing visitation
- Any history of abuse, including any ongoing threat to the child
- Whether the defendant or a member of their household has a history of violent crimes, sexual assault, or crimes against children
- The party that can best provide for the physical safety and supervision of the child
- Each parent's relationship with the child and the parenting duties each performs for the child
- The child's need for stability and continuity in education, community life, and family life
- Whether any extended family is in the area
- Any of the child's sibling relationships
- How willing and able each parent is to cooperate, and the level of conflict between them - protection from abuse isn't evidence of unwillingness to cooperate
- Any history of drug or alcohol abuse
- The mental and physical condition of each party
- Any other relevant factors
See id. at § 5328(b).
What Happens if I Violate a Protection from Abuse Order?
Violating a PFA order is a criminal offense, and you can find yourself facing up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. If a court finds you guilty of violating a PFA, you will have a criminal record for “indirect criminal contempt.” Even what you think is a small violation of a PFA, like a text or phone call, can end with your arrest.
If you violate the custody or visitation provisions of a PFA, the plaintiff can petition for a civil contempt violation. If the court finds you guilty, you could end up in jail for six months. Moreover, violating a PFA will affect permanent custody decisions of the family court.
Can I Get Custody Back After the PFA Expires?
PFAs in Pennsylvania can remain in place for up to three years. After that time, you may be able to regain custody or visitation. However, to regain custody or visitation, it's essential that you carefully follow the terms of the PFA for the entire time it's in force. If you violate the order, the plaintiff may ask for the court to renew the PFA.
Hire an Experienced PFA Attorney
If you're facing a protection from abuse order in Pennsylvania, particularly if you're worried about its effect on custody and visitation, you need an experienced Pennsylvania family law attorney by your side. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has been helping Monroe County families through custody disputes and PFA litigation for many years, and he can help you too. Contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or schedule an appointment online.