Rocky relationships with relatives, spouses, or intimate partners can sometimes lead to abuse, including both physical and psychological abuse such as online bullying or threatening text messages and emails. Residents of Pennsylvania may protect themselves from such abuse by filing a request for a court order called a Protection From Abuse order (“PFA”) to protect themselves and their children. PFAs are appropriate if you are experiencing physical, sexual, or psychological abuse from an intimate partner, a relative, or someone related to you through marriage, including relatives of a spouse or significant other. (If the other person is not a family member, then a Sexual Violence Protective Order (SVPO) is the appropriate order to request.)
It's not always easy to figure out if hostile behavior is abuse: It often starts slowly and gradually escalates over time. The point is to control the victim. Pennsylvania law uses the term “harassment” to describe different types of abusive conduct. Harassment encompasses a wide range of behaviors, including but not limited to:
- Physical violence or threats of physical violence
- Communicating repeatedly for no legitimate reason or at inconvenient hours
- Sending lewd, threatening, or obscene messages to the other person or to others about the person
A PFA gives the victim various types of protections. A PFA order can make it illegal for the abuser to approach, contact, harass or abuse the victim and the victim's children. It can also order the abuser to return personal property. If the abuser violates the PFA, they may be charged with a crime.
How To Obtain a PFA
There are three types of PFAs: an Emergency PFA, an Ex Parte Temporary PFA, and a Final PFA.
Emergency PFAs are granted only under urgent circumstances outside of business hours, based on a referral from a 911 call. The caller will be referred to a Magistrate court judge. If the judge believes that the caller and the caller's children are in immediate danger, the judge will grant an emergency order that allows law enforcement officers to remove the abuser from the premises.
An Emergency PFA is only in effect until 5 PM of the next day that the court is open. To remain protected, the victim must apply for an Ex Parte Temporary PFA before that deadline passes.
Ex Parte Temporary PFA
An Ex Parte Temporary PFA is a PFA that requires only the testimony of the party requesting the PFA (the “plaintiff” or “petitioner”). Courts allow this when the plaintiff believes and convinces the court that they are in extreme danger from the other person (the “defendant” or “respondent”).
To apply for an Ex Parte Temporary PFA, you will need to go to your County's Court of Common Pleas and fill out paperwork in the Clerk's office. While you do not need to bring a police report with you, it can help your case if you first file a report with your local police department. If you decide to file a police report, be sure and bring copies of any messages (such as texts and emails) or other physical evidence you have, such as photos of bruises or other injuries.
The PFA form will ask you to write down the reason you are requesting legal protection and to provide examples of the abuse you have suffered. Your case will be stronger, and the judge will be more likely to grant your request if you are very specific in your descriptions, including approximate dates and times and where the abuse took place.
An Ex Parte Temporary PFA goes into effect immediately. It forbids the alleged abuser from contacting or going near the plaintiff until the date of a hearing.
Because an emergency PFA does not require that the defendant be served or notified before it is issued, the court always schedules a hearing to take place soon after the PFA is issued–in Pennsylvania, generally ten days or so. This gives the defendant time to be notified by the police or sheriff, and it gives both parties time to assemble evidence and prepare for the hearing.
On the date of the hearing, both parties must appear in court. If the defendant fails to appear or to send a legal representative, the judge will most likely grant the PFA. If the defendant appears and agrees to the order, the judge will sign a “Final PFA by consent” agreement. If the defendant does not agree to the order, the judge will allow each party to present their case. The parties are allowed to have lawyers represent them.
If the plaintiff does not appear, the judge may take the hearing off the calendar, which means that the plaintiff will have to start the application process over again.
After hearing from both parties, the judge will decide whether to grant a Final PFA. A Final PFA can remain in effect for up to three years and can be renewed.
If the judge grants a Final PFA, the plaintiff should make several copies. They should keep one certified (stamped by the court) copy with them at all times. The other copies should be distributed to any locations where the defendant might show up, including the plaintiff's workplace, home, and car. If there are school-age children in the relationship, a copy should be given to the school office.
If the defendant did not show up for the hearing and has not yet been served with the order, then as soon as a law-enforcement officer has served the defendant and sent you the proof of service, make copies of it and give one to everyone who has already been given a copy of the order.
Under U.S. federal law, a PFA is valid and enforceable in any state or territory. Thus, if a person subject to a PFA crosses state or tribal boundaries intending to violate the order, they may be arrested and charged with a federal offense.
If you need advice about obtaining or contesting a Protection From Abuse order, contact the Lento Law Firm.