Domestic violence and spousal abuse are frequent tabloid fodder, but as anyone involved in the family law system can attest, divorce proceedings can bring these issues—alleged or real—into the courtroom.
Protection From Abuse (PFA) Orders serve a very serious purpose, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania treats them with due respect. Designed to safeguard individuals against harm by family or household members, intimate partners, or a parent of a child, PFAs should never be taken lightly by either side.
Being the target of a PFA can have massive consequences, including the loss of child custody, employment upheaval, blockage to education options, jeopardy to professional licenses, and removal of firearm rights. They often also require vacating any shared residence with the plaintiff.
Beyond these tangibles, your reputation in the community can suffer, possibly irreparably. Understanding and navigating the appeals process for PFAs is critical to the preservation of personal and professional standing.
What Constitutes Abuse?
For a judge to order a temporary PFA, physical abuse need not occur. In Pennsylvania, an order can also be enforced due to accusations of:
- Attempting or threatening to cause physical injury
- Sexual assault
- False imprisonment
Essentially, anything that makes a plaintiff in reasonable fear of bodily injury can be a basis for a PFA. After a temporary PFA is granted by a judge, a formal hearing must be scheduled within ten business days.
What Should I Do if I Receive Notice That a PFA Had Been Filed Against Me?
First, find a lawyer with specific experience fighting PFAs—it's essential to have someone skilled standing beside you, helping you protect your rights.
Regulations and protocol vary across counties and courts, and a local attorney can support your cause before the courts, particularly if the plaintiff brings criminal as well as civil charges against you. A successful appeal could well be determined by your choice of legal counsel.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento represents clients engaged in stressful divorce and custody proceedings. He has a deep understanding of Pennsylvania family law and can assist should you be on the receiving end of a PFA.
In the event you are the subject of a PFA, it's important for one thing to stay top of mind: Stay away from the plaintiff. Do not text, call, email, or try to get in touch with them in any way—even if they contact you.
Contesting a Temporary PFA
Once a hearing date is set, it is essential for you to appear at the hearing; should you fail to attend, the court can then file a permanent PFA by default—this makes the action much harder to contest and cannot be expunged from court records.
The formal portion of the court hearing can involve witnesses, evidence, testimony, and cross-examination. This is the phase where a skilled legal counselor can be a tremendous and key resource in your case.
A family law or divorce attorney can assist with gathering evidence, which can consist of gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, and pulling together texts, emails, and voicemails from the plaintiff.
While defendants are prohibited from any contact with the plaintiff—off-limits, for example, is you contacting the plaintiff with what you believe to be an innocent question about your children—a PFA doesn't prohibit an alleged victim from contact with you. That said, any communication from the plaintiff can be found as crucial evidence that can help you fight the order.
DON'T: Respond to any messages or calls from the person seeking the PFA.
DO: Turn over all communications to you from the plaintiff to your lawyer so he or she can effectively prepare you for the hearing.
What is the Protection From Abuse Database (PSAD)?
The Pennsylvania State Police have constructed a statewide electronic registry. The PSAD allows law enforcement officials and court personnel to search by the name of the plaintiff or defendant.
Included in the PSAD are active temporary PFA orders, final orders entered after a hearing that finds against the defendant, and final orders entered by default after a defendant does not appear at the formal hearing. It even includes PFA orders entered without any admission of wrongdoing on the part of the defendant.
The order itself will not appear in standard background checks or criminal history checks. However, if you're planning to apply for a position that is with a federal agency—including the Department of Defense, Federal Bureau of Investigations, Drug Enforcement Agency—that agency can see the order and can deny or revoke security clearances necessary for employment.
The Final PFA Hearing
Both the plaintiff and defendant will have a chance to testify under oath regarding their respective sides of the story. Attorneys for each can cross-examine the opposing parties and any witnesses called upon to testify in the case.
This is a critical juncture where a trusted legal advisor can make a huge difference in how a PFA hearing plays out. An attorney who is experienced in PA family and divorce law will have a strong understanding of the subtleties of the PFA process on how the Commonwealth considers these cases and the best approach in a specific courtroom.
Once each side has concluded arguments, the judge will make a determination based on the testimony and the evidence that has been presented. He or she can then order a final PFA for up to a period of three years.
Appealing a Final PFA
Within the purview of the Pennsylvania Superior Court, a final PFA order can be appealed within 30 days. Attorneys will be required to provide court transcripts and other evidence.
Make no mistake, this can be a difficult and extremely complex process—having a lawyer who knows how to navigate the issues around PFA at this stage is very important, but the earlier you get an experienced attorney involved, the better your chances of success upon appeal.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have unparalleled experienced helping clients overcome the challenges associated with Protection from Abuse orders. Contact the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686.