Think that “domestic violence” refers only to minor scuffles between husband and wife? Or that it just occurs when an argument gets out of hand, resulting in a boyfriend or girlfriend throwing hands? Think again. In 2020, 109 Pennsylvanians were killed in domestic violence incidents. Not only that, but fully 20% of them were innocent bystanders—friends or family members of the abused person, or someone who intervened in an attempt to halt the violence.
One recourse that victims of abuse have is to file for a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order. This is what Pennsylvania calls a restraining order or protective order. It's a document issued by a judge and filed in the Court of Common Pleas Family Division that sets forth various types of relief to victims of domestic abuse.
First Things First: PFA Order Basics
There are two types of PFA orders. One is temporary. A temporary order can be made by a judge who believes the filer is in immediate danger. Along with granting that order, the judge will also schedule a hearing within ten days. A final protection from abuse order can last up to 36 months. In certain circumstances, both types of PFA orders can be extended at the court's discretion.
Who can get a PFA order? There are two requirements that must be met when filing for this type of protective order. First, the petitioner must be an adult or the adult guardian acting on behalf of a minor. Second, there must be an established relationship with the abuser. Specifically, the filer and the abuser must be married, related by blood, have a biological child together, or be current or former “intimate” partners (although the “intimacy” does not need to be sexual in nature). It is not necessary for the parties to have lived together previously or to be living together currently, as long as one of the aforementioned relationships has been established.
What qualifies as “abuse”? The terms “domestic violence” and “abuse” are often used interchangeably, but what defines abuse in a legal sense? Under Pennsylvania law, it is illegal to physically or sexually harm another person or to threaten to do so. This includes rape and other forms of sexual assault, the physical or sexual abuse of minor children, stalking and threatening, interfering with the person's freedom to move around, and any act that results in reasonable fear of immediate and serious harm.
Potential Types of Relief Granted by a PFA Order
The specifics of a Protection from Abuse order will vary depending on the type of abuse and the circumstances of the relationship. Some of the most common forms of relief, however, will order the defendant to:
- Stop abusing the victim and stay away from them. This includes harassment and stalking. PFA orders almost always prohibit the defendant from contacting the plaintiff and often extend that prohibition to relatives and others connected to the plaintiff. It's also customary for the order to specify that the defendant must steer clear of not just the plaintiff but also their home, school, and/or workplace.
- Be evicted. If the two parties share a residence, the defendant may be ordered to vacate the residence. It surprises many people to learn that this type of relief will be ordered even if the defendant's name owns the home or rents the apartment and even if they are solely responsible for paying the rent or mortgage. It's entirely possible for the plaintiff to be awarded possession of a shared residence and for the defendant to be ordered to continue paying for it.
- Provide financial support. Whether or not the parties are legally married, the PFA defendant can be compelled to provide financial support to the plaintiff or plaintiffs. The court will determine whether the defendant has a legal duty to support the other parties financially. Again, this is another stipulation of PFA orders that, despite being relatively common, comes as a shock to defendants and others.
- Pay for reasonable losses. If a PFA plaintiff suffers a material or financial loss as a result of the abuse, the defendant can be made to pay those losses. These typically include medical bills, expenses associated with missing work, and relocation costs. Additionally, the defendant can be made responsible for paying the plaintiff's attorney fees and other legal expenses.
- Relinquish weapons. PFA defendants may not possess or acquire firearms, ammunition, or other weapons for the duration of the PFA (and will have to fulfill certain criteria in order to gain possession of their firearms upon the expiration or dismissal of the PFA). If the defendant already owns guns, they must relinquish them to law enforcement, an attorney, or a licensed firearms dealer within 24 hours of the issuance of the PFA order. Failing to do so is a second-degree misdemeanor.
- Any other orders or provisions as requested by the plaintiff or deemed necessary by the court. Family Court judges have a great deal of latitude when it comes to granting additional forms of relief. The plaintiff may make specific requests, and the judge will include them in the PFA order if they find those requests appropriate and helpful for stopping or preventing abuse.
Another form of relief is granting the plaintiff temporary custody or temporary visitation rights of minor children. This may be at the defendant's expense, meaning that the defendant may lose their custody or visitation rights for a period of time. Sometimes the PFA is granted solely to the child or children, while other times, any minor children may be named along with the plaintiff parent or guardian in the petition for the order.
A Protection from Abuse order will often necessitate that the parties renegotiate a custody agreement in Family Court.
Steps To Take After Being Served with a PFA Order
Domestic violence cases can be incredibly tricky, as courts frequently proceed with an abundance of caution in order to protect the plaintiff. If you have been served with an order of protection, it's absolutely vital to stop, regroup, and engage the services of an experienced attorney before taking any other actions. Striking out against the plaintiff is never advisable and will almost invariably end in more difficulty, if not in additional charges.
One very smart step to take if you find yourself on the receiving end of a PFA order is to get professional counsel. Contact attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm or call 888-535-3686 to learn about our approach to PFA and Family Law defense and how we have helped many other clients to safeguard their reputation, livelihood, and families after being served a PFA order.