A Protection from Abuse order (PFA)–commonly known as a Restraining Order–is a Pennsylvania judicial instrument meant to protect victims of domestic violence from their alleged abuser. Such orders come with serious consequences, particularly concerning child custody and visitation. Even if you have a court-ordered custody and visitation arrangement in place, the judge ordering a PFA may override the order and mandate a new arrangement, usually awarding temporary custody to the victim. Here's what you need to know about PFA orders and child custody and visitation.
What Is a PFA Order?
A victim of domestic abuse in Pennsylvania (the plaintiff) may seek a PFA from a family court judge against the alleged abuser (the defendant). If the judge is satisfied that physical or sexual abuse has occurred within the household, they will grant a temporary PFA order. This order will remain in effect until the final PFA hearing, which typically occurs within ten days. Both the plaintiff and defendant will have the opportunity to present their cases at the final hearing. The plaintiff, however, has the burden of proving that the defendant physically or sexually abused them.
After the final hearing, the judge will determine whether to issue a permanent PFA order, which will last for up to three years. Because the stakes are so high, both parties should be represented and prepared for the hearing by experienced legal counsel.
What Can a PFA Order Do?
The temporary PFA order will require the defendant to stop abusing, threatening, or harassing the plaintiff or others in the household, such as the children. The order may also forbid the defendant from contacting or approaching those protected by the PFA, whether in person, via telephone, texts, email, social media, or other forms of electronic communication. The temporary order may also revoke the defendant's right to return to the family home or see the children.
It's important to note that the PFA goes into effect immediately after the judge signs it. If the defendant fails to follow even a single detail in the order, they can be arrested immediately and face serious legal consequences, including fines, jail time, or the permanent loss of child custody. For this reason, upon being served with a PFA order, the defendant should not attempt to see the plaintiff or the children or return home, even to pick up clothes and toiletries. Instead, they should contact a trusted criminal defense attorney to determine their next step and prepare for the final PFA hearing.
Does a PFA Extend to Children?
If a plaintiff alleges that the defendant is abusing a specific minor child or children and names them in the petition, the PFA order may also cover them. In some cases, the minor (under age 18) may be the one to desire a PFA, in which case an adult, not necessarily of the same household, would have to file the petition on their behalf.
How Might a PFA Affect an Existing Child Custody Arrangement?
Because ensuring the safety of victims of domestic abuse is paramount, it's common for a temporary PFA to override any existing custody or visitation arrangements. In most cases, the defendant will not be permitted to see, approach, or visit the children until the judge has made a final determination on the PFA order. The plaintiff will likely notify the authorities at the children's school, after-school programs, or other extra-curricular activities, so they can ensure that the defendant does not contact the child.
If the court determines at the final PFA hearing that the defendant has abused or is abusing the plaintiff or the children, the final PFA may establish a new custody and visitation arrangement that will last the duration of the final PFA (typically three years). In most cases, the plaintiff is awarded full custody of the children, and the defendant's visits with the children are regulated. In extreme cases, the court may forbid the defendant from contacting the children. If the defendant loses custody of the children, the court will also likely order the alleged abuser to leave the family home but will still require them to pay child support.
How Does the Judge Determine Custody and Visitation Rights?
The best interests of the child always take priority in custody decisions. When a PFA is involved, the judge will determine the child's best interests by assessing multiple factors, including whether:
- The child or one parent is being abused
- The child or one parent is in imminent danger of violence from the other parent
- The defendant has been accused of violence in the past
- Any injuries have resulted from the domestic violence
- Any witnesses have observed violence against the child or parent
Based on their findings, the judge will then decide on the custody and visitation arrangement that best ensures the child's health and safety.
What if You've Been Falsely Accused of Abuse?
Unfortunately, some unprincipled individuals seek to use the protections of the PFA to gain temporary custody of their children and falsely accuse their spouse or partner of abuse. If you've found yourself in this circumstance, you must urgently retain a skilled criminal defense lawyer with ample experience defending PFAs. Your lawyer can help challenge the accusations against you, develop a strong defense, and fight to help you maintain custody of your kids–but you must act quickly.
Beyond hiring a lawyer, be sure to follow the restrictions and obligations of the PFA strictly, even if it pains you to do so. If you violate the terms of the PFA, you will not only face legal consequences, but you may jeopardize your future custodial or visitation rights. Avoid all contact with the plaintiff and the children. If they appear where you are, leave immediately without speaking or approaching them. Inform your lawyer of any accidental meeting that could be misconstrued.
Talk to an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney
If you have more questions about PFAs,contact Pennsylvania PFA attorney Joseph D. Lento immediately. Attorney Lento and the Lento Law Firm have one of the strongest records of PFA representation success in Pennsylvania. We stand ready to help you understand your rights and decide on the best course of action. Contact them today at 888.535.3686 or online for a consultation.