Child Support
Consumer Law
Dependency & Adoption
Marriage & Divorce
Protection From Abuse
Public Benefits
Unemployment Compensation

What is abuse?

Abuse is the improper usage or treatment of another person for a bad purpose. Often times it is to improperly gain a benefit, to inflict physical or verbal maltreatment/injury/sexual assault/rape/violation/unjust practices/verbal aggression amongst other actions. The state of Pennsylvania generally does not consider mental or emotional abuse or non-threatening arguments concerning custody of children qualifying to file a Protection from Abuse Order. Under the PFA Act (23 Pa.C.S § 6102(a)), abuse is defined as “[t]he occurrence of one or more of the following acts between family or household members, sexual or intimate partners or persons who share biological parenthood: (1) Attempting to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault; (2) Placing another in reasonably fear of imminent serious bodily injury; (3) the infliction of false imprisonment . . . (4) physically or sexually abusing minor children . . . (5) [and/or] knowingly engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts toward another person . . . under circumstances which place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury.”

What is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence is an act committed by one person against another. It is a pattern of coercive behavior that is used by one person to gain power and control over another. Domestic violent actions include physical violence, sexual, threats and intimidation, verbal abuse, stalking and economic control. Some examples of domestically violent actions are breaking objects, hurting/killing pets, yelling, driving recklessly to endanger or scare the victim, isolating the victim from friends and family members and controlling resources like money, vehicles, credit, medications and time.

What is a Protection from Abuse Order?

A Protection from Abuse Order (PFA) protects a person and/or their children from an abuser. It is a civil order, not a criminal order. It is important to remember that obtaining a PFA is only a part of a larger safety plan. It is a piece of paper and can only do so much; however, it is a first step to removing oneself from an abusive relationship.

Is there a Necessary Relationship in order to file a PFA?

In order to file for a PFA, one must be at least 18 years old OR have an adult guardian file on their behalf. You must have a certain relationship with an abuser to get PFA to get a PFA order against him. For example, the abuser could be the victim’s parent, current or former spouse, child or current or former sexual or intimate partner (this also includes same sex partners). If none of the above relationships exist between the victim and the abuser than a criminal complaint, rather than a civil PFA, must be filed.

What needs to be included in the PFA Petition?

The victim that files for the PFA is referred to as the “plaintiff” and the other party is referred to as the “defendant.” The following things need to be included in the petition:

1. Name of the defendant and all those in need of protection

2. Dates of birth

3. social security numbers

4. Address of the defendant

5. specific information about the incident

It is also helpful to have evidence of the incident. For example, pictures of the injuries inflicted upon the victim by the abuser, medical records from hospital visits due to the abuse and/or police reports made after an incident of abuse by the abuser. Also, any extra identifying information about the defendant is helpful in filing the PFA.

There are specific things that the petitioner is able to ask for in a PFA; those things include:

1. The judge is able to order that the abuser stop threatening, abusing, harassing and/or stalking those that are included in the complaint.

2. The judge is able to order that the abuser be evicted from the joint residence or ordered to not be allowed in residence.

3. The petitioner may request their new address or location to be held as confidential and not released in any way.

4. The judge can order that the petitioner have temporary custody of children.

5. The judge can order for temporary child or spousal support and compensation from abuser for any out-of-pocket expenses that were caused by the acts of the abuser.

6. The judge can order that he abuser have no contact with the petitioner and/or the children.

7. The no contact order may also include any contact at work or at school.

8. The judge may require that the abuser turn over any or all weapons that they may own and/or possess.

9. The judge can order any other necessary relief – including ordering that certain things be returned to the petitioner that is in the possession of the abuser (i.e. car keys, pets, important documents, etc.).

What happens after the PFA Petition is filed?

When the petition is filed a Judge will review the petition. If there is need for immediate protection the judge will issue a Temporary Protection Order (an ex parte proceeding ordered by the court when there is alleged immediate and present danger of abuse). The temporary protection can give much of the protection allowed in a final PFA Order, and it often will prohibit the defendant from having any contact the plaintiff whatsoever. According to the PFA Act, the court may require that the defendant relinquish firearms when: “(A) Whether the temporary order of protection from abuse is not likely to achieve its purpose in the absence of such a condition, (B) whether the defendant has previously violated a protection from abuser order, (C) whether past or present abuse to the plaintiff or any of the plaintiff’s minor children resulted in injury, (D) whether the abuse occurred in public, [and/or] (E) whether the abuse includes: threats, of abuse or suicide; killing or threatening to kill pets; an escalation of violence; stalking or obsessive behavior’ sexual violence; [and/or] drug or excessive alcohol use” [(23 Pa.C.S § 6107(b)(3)]. (Finally, there must be a hearing for the final PFA within (by law) ten days of the petition filing. Depending on the County, if there is a child involved the temporary protection order will sometimes suspend the defendant’s rights to see the child. Most often the sheriff will serve the defendant with the copy of the temporary protection order and the PFA petition. The order will have a notice specifying the exact date and time that the hearing will be held. In some counties you can serve the defendant by mail. If service by mail is allowed, the PFA petition, order and hearing notice must all be sent to the defendant by certified mail with return receipt requested. If for some reason the defendant is not served by the time of the hearing, the hearing will be continued (rescheduled) until the defendant is able to be served.

How does one prepare for a PFA Hearing?

There are at most only ten days between the filing of the PFA petition and the actual first hearing. The judge will listen to any evidence of abuse that the plaintiff has gathered and brought to the hearing before deciding on whether a final PFA will be issued. Some evidence that is helpful to present is first and foremost the plaintiff’s own testimony. This is where the plaintiff will explain what happened and it is helpful to have the exact dates and location of the specific incidents. Furthermore, it is helpful to be as detailed and specific as possible. Another helpful piece of evidence for the hearing are any pictures that can show any injuries inflicted by the defendant or damaged property damaged by the defendant. Furthermore, it is helpful to have witnesses that have personal knowledge of the abuse between the victim and the defendant. The most important thing is to listen to what your legal representative advises you of because what you say in court is very important.

What happens if the Abuser Violates the PFA?

The police should be called immediately if the abuser violates a PFA order. The police are authorized to arrest the abuser for violating the terms of the order, such as the no contact or stay away provisions. The abuser may be released shortly after arrest for the violation; therefore, the petitioner should make necessary arrangements to keep themselves and their dependents safe.

How can an Advocate from Southwestern PA Legal Services help?

An attorney at SPLAS will go to court and assist in negotiations and/or representation in front of the judge. The advocate can provide information about the county’s PFA and hearing process and help to plan for a safer future. Everything that a victim wishes to keep confidential will be kept between the advocate and the victim; this is so the victim can speak freely about their circumstances and plan for future safety. IT is always important to remember that a PFA is only a piece of paper and there are other avenues that must be used in order to ensure the safest possible future.


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