5 things you need to know about PFAs

By Marc Scaringi of Scaringi Law posted in Family Law on Thursday, December 3, 2015.

This past year, the spotlight has landed on domestic violence, from the NFL right down to your local police station and courthouse. A key tool in this effort to prevent, educate and safeguard victims remains the Protection from Abuse Order, or PFA.

This special court order, signed by a judge, can be obtained by anyone who legitimately feels threatened with physical harm -- actual physical harm does not have to occur. PFAs can be very powerful, especially when one is issued against you, or can be as flimsy as the paper on which they are written.

They can cause legal trouble for PFA subjects who don't get the "no contact" message. Yet PFAs can't block a punch or stop a bullet from an abuser determined to do harm.

Here are five important things to know about PFAs:

1. Filing for a PFA

The legal definition of abuse includes causing or attempting to cause bodily injury or any kind of assaultive behavior, as well as causing a victim to fear the threat of bodily injury. Specific offenses include false imprisonment, physical or sexual abuse, and any conduct or repeated act that causes a victim to reasonably fear being injured. This conduct may include text messages, telephone calls, verbal harassment and stalking.

A PFA order can be requested at any Common Pleas court location, or, if the Common Pleas Court is unavailable, an emergency, temporary order can be requested through a lower court. The victim fills out a simple form, asking for names, addresses and phone numbers of all parties involved, along with descriptions of the alleged abuse or threats of abuse.

Every effort is then made to get the potential victim before a judge who can issue a temporary PFA immediately. The order takes effect as soon as it is served on the subject -usually that same day. How long a PFA remains in effect depends on a more formal hearing with both parties.

2. He said, she said

More than 99 percent of the PFAs filed are by women. Pennsylvania law requires the Plaintiff and Defendant to be family or household members, sexual or intimate partners or persons who share biological parenthood. Both sides will get the opportunity to tell their stories to a judge at a formal hearing. This court proceeding can involve witnesses, evidence and testimony.

Often, the alleged victim is represented by a legal aid agency. The PFA subject should retain a lawyer of his own. A permanent PFA, which can remain in effect for a maximum of three years, can alter a person's entire life, causing dire consequences when it comes to child custody, firearms possession and even criminal charges and imprisonment for a PFA violation.

3. Making a PFA personal

PFAs work when both parties respect the power of a judge's order to proscribe limits on their lives and relationships. The best PFAs are tailored to the individual circumstances of each case. By attending the PFA hearing and being represented by a criminal defense lawyer, the PFA subject can attempt to challenge the Court's issuance of a permanent order by challenging whether "abuse" has occurred. Additionally, the PFA subject may be able to impact the terms of any final order and how long it remains in force.

For example, a judge may allow an exception for the PFA subject to pick up children from school. If the alleged behavior doesn't rise to a pattern, the duration of the PFA can be limited.

4. Living with a PFA

Once a final PFA is issued, the subject is bound by its restrictions until a judge lifts the order or allows it to expire. If you both live in a small town, it may be difficult to avoid incidental contact. However, if the subject finds himself in the same establishment as the PFA holder, the safest way to avoid being charged with violating the PFA would be to immediately leave -- even if he was there first, or if he has a full grocery cart and is in line to check out.

The PFA subject also must respect other boundaries delineated within the PFA, such as bans on visiting the child's school or the holder's workplace.

The no-contact provision of a PFA extends to text messages, phone calls and Facebook posts. And PFA subjects may not circumvent the order by having a third party deliver a message to the PFA holder. This is treated as if the PFA subject made the contact.

Violating a PFA is serious business, resulting in a charge of indirect criminal contempt, a misdemeanor that carries fines of $300 to $1,000 and jail time of up to six months, or up to six months of probation.

5. Limitations of PFAs

In the end, PFAs are only pieces of paper. If a PFA subject is determined to violate an order, most likely he will. Too many women are killed or badly injured despite having a PFA. Indeed, the mere act of seeking a PFA can sometimes trigger the abuser to retaliate. In these cases, potential victims must take additional steps for protection, even seeking shelter in a protected facility for abuse victims and their children.

A PFA has the power to re-order your life unlike few other legal actions. Failing to respect this power can lead to serious criminal charges and major disruptions in your career, your role as a parent, your finances and even your freedom.

In other words, all sides should treat PFAs like the potent legal tool they are.

To learn more about how Scaringi Law attorney Marc Scaringi can help you, call him toll-free at 877-LAW-2555 or email him at info@scaringilaw.com


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