What is a Protection From Abuse (PFA) Order?
In Pennsylvania, a PFA order from a court gives protective “relief” for a victim (and sometimes their children) for a period of up to three years (for final orders). A person can file for a PFA order from the court for themselves, or on behalf of their minor children. A PFA describes various types of protections for the victim. For example, a PFA order can make it illegal for the abuser to contact, harass and abuse the victim and the victim’s children, it may order the abuser to return personal property. An abusers violation of a PFA may result in criminal charges.
Restraining orders can work to deter certain abusers. A PFA is just one tool in a larger plan to be safe from the abuse.
Who Can Obtain a PFA?
A victim of abuse may file for a PFA order against an intimate partner or a family member, such as:
- Spouses or ex-spouses
- Domestic partners
- Same-sex partners
- Persons related by blood or marriage (including brothers/sisters)
- Current or former sexual or intimate partners (including dating relationships).
Pennsylvania’s PFA Act does not protect victims who experience abuse by a stranger, or a roommate with whom the victim is not intimately involved.
How to File for a PFA
Although the Pennsylvania PFA Act is State law, the process for getting a PFA varies by county. The general process follows:
- The victim (“plaintiff”/”petitioner”) goes to the county courthouse to fill out a form (“petition”). The forms asks victims to explain why they are seeking protection and to describe the abuse they’ve suffered. The victim will also indicate on the form what types of protections they are seeking, for example, no contact by the abuser or a request for the abuser to relinquish their firearms.
- A judge then reviews the petition and may have some additional questions for the plaintiff. At this time, a judge may grant or deny a temporary PFA. A date for a final hearing will be scheduled within 10 business days. If a temporary PFA is granted, it provides protection for the victim through the date of the final hearing.
- Next, the local sheriff’s office will deliver a copy of the petition, temporary PFA order and notice of the final hearing to the defendant.
- At the time of the final PFA hearing, the plaintiff/victim and defendant/abuser both have the opportunity to come before the judge. Both are allowed to have attorneys represent them at the hearing. A domestic violence advocate may also accompany the victim. If both the plaintiff and defendant agree on the terms of an order, this will be shared with the judge who will make it official. This is known as a PFA by consent agreement. If either party does not agree, both the victim and the abuser will go in front of the judge to share their accounts. The judge will make a determination based on the testimony and/or evidence he or she receives. The judge can then order a final PFA for up to a period of three years.
The local domestic violence program has information about the PFA process in each county and the rights of victims of abuse and other crimes. The PFA Act states that an advocate from the local domestic violence program may accompany victims to PFA hearings. Advocates discussions with victims are confidential.
What Does a PFA Order Cost?
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.
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.
Are PFA 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 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.
Annotated PFA Act for Legal Professionals
View Annotated PFA Act