PROTECTION FROM ABUSE

PFAs Do Work!
Common Pleas Judge Kathy A. Morrow explains how to get one in 4 easy steps

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What is a Protection From Abuse (PFA) Order?

A PFA order from a court gives protective "relief" for a victim (and sometimes children) for up to three years. A person can file for a PFA order from the court for themselves or on behalf of their children who are under age eighteen. A PFA order describes certain things the abuser must do or is forbidden to do in regard to a victim, and can include many kinds of protection. For example, a PFA order can make it illegal for the abuser to contact, harass and abuse the victim and the victim's children. The PFA order can order the abuser to give back keys, papers, toys, clothes and other items. If the abuser does not follow the order, there can be criminal charges.

Research suggests that PFAs work to deter certain abusers. For a domestic violence victim, getting a PFA is just one part of a larger plan to be safe from the abuse. An advocate at the local domestic violence program can help a victim create a safety plan for the family.

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Who Can Obtain a PFA Order?

A victim of abuse may file for a PFA order against an intimate partner or a family member, such as:

  • Spouses or ex-spouses;
  • Persons who have lived as spouses;
  •  Domestic partners;
  • Same sex couples;
  • Parents;
  • Children;
  • Persons related by blood or marriage (including bothers/sisters); or
  • Current or former sexual or intimate partners (including dating relationships).

The PFA Act does not cover abuse by a stranger or a roommate that the victim is not intimately involved with.

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How To Get a PFA Order

Although the PFA Act is a Pennsylvania law, every county has a different process to get a PFA order. The local domestic violence program has information about the PFA process in each county and the rights of victims of abuse or other crimes. The PFA Act says that an advocate from the domestic violence program can also go with victims to PFA hearings, and may not reveal anything that is talked about with victims.

Even though each county is different, the legal process follows the same general pattern. The PFA process usually starts by filling out a form called a "petition" at the local county courthouse. The questions in the petition ask victims to explain why they want protection and to describe the abuse they suffered. In legal terms, the person who wants the PFA is called the "petitioner" or the "plaintiff". The PFA petition also asks the petitioner to tell what they want the PFA to do. Usually, there are employees at the courthouse who can help to complete PFA petitions, and give information about free or low-cost legal services in the county or region. The PFA Act says that courthouse information and assistance to PFA petitioners should be provided in both English and Spanish.

After the petition is filled out, a judge will read it and may ask the plaintiff to answer a few questions. The abuser will not usually be present in the court for this. The judge may grant or deny a temporary PFA order and will schedule a date for a final hearing. A temporary PFA order will protect a victim and/or children until the date of the final hearing. This hearing will take place within 10 business days. Even if the judge does not grant a temporary protection order, the judge will schedule a final order hearing.

Next, the local sheriff's office will deliver a copy of the petition, any temporary PFA order and notice of the upcoming final hearing to the defendant. The defendant may become angry or try to contact the victim after getting the notice. It is important for victims to see an advocate at the local domestic violence program to make a safety plan for the period of time before the final hearing, especially if the judge does not give a temporary PFA order.

On the date of the PFA hearing, the plaintiff/victim and defendant/abuser will come before a judge. Both are allowed to have attorneys to represent them at this hearing. A domestic violence advocate may also come with the victim. If both the plaintiff and defendant agree on the terms of an order, the judge will make it official. If either does not agree, the judge will give the victim and abuser the chance to talk on the record about the abuse described in the petition.

After listening to the testimony, the judge may grant the plaintiff a final PFA order. Final orders can be in place for any period of time up to and including 3 years.

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What Can a PFA Order Do?

A plaintiff can ask for any or all of the following forms of relief in the PFA petition. The judge will consider the requests and may grant all or some of them in the final PFA order:

  • ask the judge to order the abuser to stop threatening, abusing, harassing or stalking the victim and the victim's children.
  • ask the judge to make the abuser leave the home or household (even if both parties own it or are on the lease)
  • request that the victim's new address or location remain confidential.
  • ask the judge for temporary custody of the children.
  • ask for temporary spousal or child support.
  • ask to be paid back for expenses that the victim had as a result of the abuse.
  • ask the judge to prohibit the abuser from contacting the victim, victim's children, or family members.
  • ask the judge to order the abuser to turn over any firearms or other weapons.
  • ask the judge to order "any other appropriate relief" like the return of a pet, car keys, important papers, or other personal property.
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How Much Does a PFA Order Cost?

The PFA Act says that PFA orders are free for the person seeking protection. In most cases, the defendant will have to pay for all or part of the PFA process. Otherwise, the county must pay.

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How Can a Domestic Violence Advocate Help?

A domestic violence advocate can help victims with many services. They may be able to help victims fill out a PFA petition or go with the victim to court. Advocates can give victims information about the county PFA process and help victims to make a safety plan.

What a victim says to a domestic violence program advocate is confidential. By law, an advocate cannot repeat what victims tell them, even if called into court by a judge. The only exception is that the advocate must report it if the victim reveals that a child is in danger of being abused. Confidentiality between victims and advocates means that victims can speak freely about their circumstances and plan for their future safety.

Domestic violence programs and advocates do not charge for their services. Victims can reach a domestic violence advocate anywhere in the country by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 800-787-3224. Every county in Pennsylvania is served by a domestic violence program

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What If an Abuser Violates the PFA Order?

In most cases, the victim should immediately call the police if the abuser doesn't keep to ("violates") the terms of the PFA order. According the PFA Act, the police can and should arrest the abuser for any violation of the PFA order. The only exception is that the police cannot arrest an abuser for not paying expenses and support as ordered.

A defendant who violates a PFA order can be arrested and charged with a crime called indirect criminal contempt. The victim may be asked to testify about the violation at a court hearing. If the court finds the defendant guilty of violating the PFA order, the court can give jail time, probation, and/or fines.

Even though the police may arrest and charge an abuser for indirect criminal contempt, the abuser may be released before the hearing. Victims should consider talking to a domestic violence advocate about steps to take to stay safe.

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Are PFA and Protection Orders Valid Across State Lines?

Yes, a PFA order from Pennsylvania is valid in every county in Pennsylvania, every state across the country, and on tribal lands. Protection orders from other states or tribal courts are also valid in Pennsylvania. This is because the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a federal law that protects victims of domestic violence, makes all states honor other courts' protection orders. There are law enforcement databases that make it easier for police to electronically check protection orders, but they are not foolproof. It is important for victims to have their PFA orders with them whenever they are traveling or if they move to a new address, especially out of state.

A plaintiff who has a PFA order does not have to register it in a different county or state for it to be valid, but registering it with the local courthouse may be helpful. On the plus side, registering an order allows police to quickly verify the order and respond faster to if an abuser violates it. On the downside, some states will notify the defendant when the victim registers a PFA order in a new county or state. If the victim does not want an abuser to know where they are, they may not want to register the PFA. Procedures for registering a PFA order vary from state to state.

A domestic violence program (Find Help) or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 800-787-3224 can give more information on how to register a PFA order in a new state.

It is good for a victim to have a certified copy of the order along at all times, especially if a victim decides not to register a PFA order after moving. (A certified copy is one that is stamped with a raised seal and initialed by the court.) It is also a good idea to have multiple copies of the order for work, home, and/or school.

PCADV Works to Help Victims Get Legal Protection From Abuse 

  • PCADV's member programs work in every county to provide domestic violence victims and families with emergency shelter, housing options and other services to help victims gain safety and independence. 
  • PCADV legal department attorneys provide technical assistance to advocates and attorneys helping domestic violence victims facing PFA legal issues.
  • PCADV offers training about the PFA Act and case law, enforcement and violations of PFAs, and working with domestic violence victims.

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