How do I get Protection from Abuse in Pennsylvania?
PFA is a type of civil law that aims to protect people who have experienced or been threatened with physical or sexual violence. It allows individuals to ask the court for protection from their abusers, even if no criminal charges have been filed. While PFA orders are often called restraining orders, they are not the same as criminal charges.
The PFA process is a civil matter, but it can lead to criminal charges if the abuser violates a court order. Its main goal is to provide relief to the victim by:
- Requiring the alleged abuser to follow specific rules, like staying away from the victim.
- Preventing the alleged abuser from harming, harassing, stalking, threatening, or using force against the victim.
- Prohibiting the alleged abuser from contacting the people protected under the law, either directly or indirectly.
In some cases, the court may also order the alleged abuser to leave the shared home or grant temporary custody of children to the victim, depending on the situation.
Obtaining a Protection from Abuse Order
Protection from Abuse (PFA) orders are usually only available for people in certain types of relationships. These relationships include:
- Current or former spouse,
- Someone you currently live with or used to live with as a spouse,
- Your sibling,
- Your parent or child,
- Current or former intimate or sexual partners,
- Someone related to you by blood or marriage,
- Same-sex couples, and
- Someone you have a child with.
You can't get a PFA for a co-worker, neighbor, classmate, friend, or stranger unless they fit into one of the qualifying relationships listed above. To apply for a PFA on your own, you must be 18 years old. Otherwise, you need a parent or guardian to apply for you.
Grounds for a Protection from Abuse Order
The Pennsylvania legislature made protection from abuse orders to help protect people from domestic violence by their current or former partners or family members. To get a PFA, the person asking for it must prove that domestic violence happened between them and the other person. In Pennsylvania, domestic violence can include things like:
Causing harm or trying to harm someone, with or without a weapon, including:
- Sexual assault
- Physical harm
- Serious physical harm
- Statutory sexual assault
- Indecent assault
- Threatening serious harm
- Harming a child physically or sexually
- Holding someone against their will
- Repeatedly scaring someone into thinking they'll get hurt.
In Pennsylvania, domestic violence can also involve other acts like assault, sexual assault, harassment, stalking, kidnapping, burglary, and theft. You can find more details in 23 Pa. Stat. § 6102(a) (2018).
The Protection from Abuse Process
The process of obtaining a PFA is usually quite fast, although the specific steps can vary by county. Here's an overview of what you can expect, using Lebanon County as an example:
1. Temporary Protection From Abuse Order:
- In a non-emergency situation, someone can go to the PFA office at the courthouse and request a Protection from Abuse Order.
- A decision will be made on whether to grant a temporary protection from abuse order, usually without the alleged abuser being present.
- If granted, the order may include restrictions to keep the alleged abuser away from the person seeking protection.
2. Protection From Abuse Order Hearing:
- If a temporary order is issued, it typically lasts up to 10 days, during which time a final hearing is scheduled.
- Both parties are notified, and the alleged abuser has the chance to present their side of the story at the hearing.
- If needed, the temporary order may continue until the final hearing can take place. At the final hearing, both sides present evidence and testimony.
3. Final Protection From Abuse Order:
- After reviewing all the evidence, the judge decides whether to grant the PFA and make the temporary order permanent, or deny the PFA.
- If granted, the judge sets the terms of the PFA, which can last up to three years and may include provisions like staying away from the victim or their children, leaving the shared home, or attending counseling.
- It's important to note that parties can sometimes avoid a hearing by agreeing to the terms of the PFA outside of court, with the maximum duration still being three years. This can benefit both the victim and the alleged abuser by avoiding a potentially contentious hearing and providing clarity on the terms of the protection order.
Situation Example 1:
Seeking Safety in a case of abusive relationship: A Case of Protection from Abuse in Pennsylvania
Imagine Sarah, a young woman living in Pennsylvania, has been in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend, Alex, for several months. Recently, the abuse has escalated, with Alex becoming physically violent towards Sarah, leaving her with bruises and injuries. Feeling scared and desperate for help, Sarah decides to seek protection from abuse through the legal system.
Sarah goes to the courthouse in her county and speaks to the staff at the Protection from Abuse (PFA) office. She explains her situation and requests a temporary PFA order against Alex. The court staff helps Sarah fill out the necessary paperwork, detailing the incidents of abuse and the relief she is seeking.
The judge reviews Sarah's petition and, considering the urgency of the situation, grants her a temporary PFA order ex parte, meaning without Alex being present. The temporary order prohibits Alex from contacting Sarah or coming near her until a final hearing can be held to determine whether to make the protection order permanent.
A few days later, Sarah receives a notice from the court informing her of the date for the final PFA hearing. At the hearing, both Sarah and Alex have the opportunity to present their cases before the judge. Sarah provides testimony about the abuse she has endured, supported by photographs of her injuries and witness statements from friends and family who have seen Alex's violent behavior.
Alex denies the allegations and claims that Sarah is making up the abuse to retaliate against him. He presents his version of events, arguing that any physical altercations were mutual and not one-sided.
After considering all the evidence presented, the judge makes a decision. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation and the evidence presented by Sarah, the judge grants a final PFA order against Alex. The order prohibits him from contacting Sarah, coming near her residence or workplace, and requires him to attend anger management counseling.
With the final PFA order in place, Sarah feels a sense of relief and safety knowing that legal protections are in place to keep her safe from further abuse. She can now focus on rebuilding her life and moving forward without fear of harm from her abuser.
Situation Example 2:
Finding Sanctuary: A Family's Journey through Protection from Abuse in Pennsylvania
Emily, a devoted mother of two, has been enduring years of emotional and verbal abuse from her husband, Michael. Despite her attempts to keep the peace for the sake of their children, the situation escalates when Michael becomes increasingly aggressive and threatens Emily with physical harm.
Feeling frightened for her safety and the well-being of her children, Emily decides to take action and seek protection from abuse. She reaches out to a local domestic violence hotline, where she receives guidance on how to navigate the legal system and file for a protection from abuse order (PFA).
With the help of an advocate, Emily gathers evidence of the abuse, including threatening messages and recordings of Michael's outbursts. She files for a temporary PFA order at the courthouse, detailing the incidents of abuse and the need for immediate protection.
The court reviews Emily's petition and grants her a temporary PFA order, providing immediate relief and prohibiting Michael from contacting her or their children. Emily feels a sense of relief knowing that legal protections are in place to keep her family safe.
A few weeks later, a final hearing is scheduled to determine whether the temporary order should be made permanent. Emily prepares herself to testify in court, supported by her advocate and evidence of the abuse.
At the hearing, Emily bravely shares her story, detailing the years of abuse she has endured and the impact it has had on her and her children. Michael denies the allegations and argues that Emily is exaggerating the situation.
After carefully considering all the evidence and testimony presented, the judge makes a decision. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation and the evidence of abuse, the judge grants a final PFA order against Michael, providing long-term protection for Emily and her children.
With the final PFA order in place, Emily and her children can finally breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that they are safe from further harm. They begin the journey towards healing and rebuilding their lives, with the support of their community and the legal protections afforded by the PFA order.
Is a Protection from Abuse order helpful?
The purpose of a PFA order is to restrict the contact or proximity of one person (the respondent or alleged perpetrator) to another person (the petitioner or victim) in order to ensure the safety and well-being of the petitioner.
The specific terms of a restraining order can vary depending on the circumstances of the case e.g. if the people live together then it might require one party to vacate the place.
Typically, a restraining order may prohibit the respondent from
- Approaching or contacting the petitioner including via text or social media
- Staying away from the usual places petitioner is at such as home, work or school
- Prohibit stalking, or surveillance of any kind
- In situations where they lived together, provide custody or access to
- Important documents
- Personal items such as clothes, medications, cell phones
- Extending the protections to others living with the petitioner
Benefits of PFA orders
Civil protective orders are effective in reducing partner violence for many women. For half the women in the sample, a protective order stopped the violence. For the other half, the orders significantly reduced violence and abuse.
They are a relatively low-cost solution, particularly when compared with the social and personal costs of partner violence.
Urban Vs. Rural
The impact of civil protective orders on reducing violence and abuse did not differ for rural and urban women. In rural areas where resources and services for partner violence may be more limited, restraining orders hold greater importance.
Process for getting a PFA
Step 1: Gather Evidence
The first step is to gather the evidence to support your case. The following are considered evidence of domestic violence
Evidence Type 1: Pending Criminal Case
Judges are also more likely to issue an order if there is an ongoing criminal case, therefore it's important to call such cases out when seeking a temporary restraining order.
When a judge sees that there's a criminal case happening, they might think it means the police or the district attorney are pretty sure they can prove the crime happened.
Examples of evidence are:
Evidence Type 2: Photos of violence, injuries, damage
These are the most common types of evidence submitted. These can be photos of victim's injuries inflicted by the abuser. It is helpful to add photos next to the related incident description to help create a complete picture for the judge.
Evidence Type 3: Print outs of messages, emails or transcripts of voicemail
You can take screenshots of text messages and attach them. Similarly you can print emails and attach them as pictures or PDF files. While in most cases you cannot submit digital files such as
Evidence Type 4: 911 Calls
Rather than just saying you called 911 or any specific hotline, you can make your case stronger by listing the following items
- The number dialed in case of the domestic hotline
- The date and time (or approximate date and time) when the call was made
- Who made the call
- What was reported on the call
- Any specific details of the person who answer the 911 call e.g. male/female voice
Evidence Type 5: Medical Records
.You can attach documentation of previous medical emergencies or injuries that resulted from the actions of the abuser. These could be hospital visit records, print outs from your hospital portal (E.g. mychart) showing details of your visit.
Evidence Type 6: Police reports
You can attach a copy of the police reports filed against abuser for domestic violence.
Evidence Type 7: Testimony
- A testimony from a witness. The witness can be anyone such as a family member, neighbor a co-worker or a bystander. The testimony is just an essay written describing the incidents witnessed, with as many specifics as possible.
Step 2: Get a copy of court forms
In order to apply for a civil protection order, you need to fill and submit a specific set of official Pennsylvania court forms. These have questions aimed at understanding your situation and the people involved.
The complete set of documents is on the Pennsylvania Courts website. While these forms are used in most courts, certain courts use modified versions of these forms, and its important to uses those versions.
Tip: You can check your local court's website to see the exact versions and set of court forms needed. You need to prepare these forms. Courts also offers a free self help center where you can take forms. Alternatively you can use a free website such as LegalAtoms to prepare the restraining orders paperwork online.
Nothing happens until you file the forms. So its a good idea to step through the forms even if you think you don't plan to file for a protection order right now, to get
You can then file them online when you've thought through all aspects. There are special protections for victims, and you're protected even if your immigration status is undocumented in United States.
Step 3: File the Court Forms
Submit your case documents at the court such that the clerk reviews their corrects and accepts them is called filing.
Identify the court at your county
In Pennsylvania, individuals seeking a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order typically file their petitions at the Court of Common Pleas in the county where they reside or where the alleged abuse occurred. The specific location where you file a PFA order will depend on the county in which you live or where the incident took place.
To determine the appropriate courthouse for filing a PFA order, you can:
- Contact the local courthouse: You can call the courthouse in your county and inquire about the process for filing a PFA order. Court staff can provide guidance on the necessary paperwork and procedures.
- Visit the courthouse website: Many county courthouses have websites that provide information on filing PFA orders, including forms and instructions. You can access the website for your county courthouse and look for resources related to PFA orders.
- Seek assistance from legal aid organizations: Legal aid organizations or domestic violence agencies in your area can also provide assistance and guidance on filing a PFA order. They may offer support services and resources to help you navigate the legal process.
By contacting the appropriate courthouse or seeking assistance from legal aid organizations, you can determine where to file a PFA order and get the necessary support to initiate the process. It's essential to follow the procedures outlined by the court and provide accurate information when filing the petition for a PFA order.
In Pennsylvania, the Superior Court is one of the state's appellate courts, and it does not hold trials or hearings for Protection from Abuse (PFA) orders. However, individuals seeking PFA orders would typically file their petitions and attend hearings at the Court of Common Pleas in the county where they reside or where the alleged abuse occurred. Here are some locations of Court of Common Pleas across Pennsylvania:
- Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas - Philadelphia
Address: 1301 Filbert Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107
- Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas - Pittsburgh
Address: 436 Grant Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15219
- Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas - Norristown
Address: 2 E Airy St, Norristown, PA 19401
- Bucks County Court of Common Pleas - Doylestown
Address: 55 E Court St, Doylestown, PA 18901
- Delaware County Court of Common Pleas - Media
Address: 201 W Front St, Media, PA 19063
- Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas - Lancaster
Address: 50 N Duke St, Lancaster, PA 17602
- Chester County Court of Common Pleas - West Chester
Address: 201 W Market St, West Chester, PA 19382
- York County Court of Common Pleas - York
Address: 45 N George St, York, PA 17401
- Erie County Court of Common Pleas - Erie
Address: 140 W 6th St, Erie, PA 16501
- Berks County Court of Common Pleas - Reading
Address: 633 Court St, Reading, PA 19601
These are just a few examples, as Pennsylvania has 67 counties, each with its own Court of Common Pleas. Individuals seeking PFA orders should file their petitions at the Court of Common Pleas in the appropriate county.
Methods of Filing
Method # 1: In Person:
Your court location would accept the forms to be submitted in person at the court hours.
Tip: All courts have lunch hours when they are closed for an hour
When you submit your case documents at the court, typically you take 3 copies.
The clerks reviews it, and if everything is ok, they formally enter it into the court system and put a stamp near the top of the documents. That acceptance is called filing.
Method # 2: Electronically via a portal
Some counties now have one or more online portals where you create an account for free, and then you can upload documents and hit submit. You will be required to pay around $5-$10 filing fees.
Method # 3: Via another person
Some counties accept filing via a friend or legal courier. These companies or individuals charge a flat or hourly fee and file the documents at the court.
Step 4: Get a Temporary Order
Depending on the facts and evidence presented, a Judge can issue a restraining order with immediate effect until the hearing, called an Emergency Temporary Order. In relatively less risky situations, a temporary order is issued in a few days.
If there are no grounds or if the application is incomplete or the jurisdiction is incorrect the application may be rejected.
The temporary order is only valid for about 3 weeks which is the amount of time until the hearing. If the hearing is delayed for any reason, you need to check with the court to ensure the temporary order is renewed until the hearing.
Step 5: Serve the abuser
If you were successful in getting a temporary order only then this step is necessary, otherwise you will have to wait until you get one.
Whenever one party initiates a restraining order it needs to inform or serve the other party formally by delivering the court documents. That step is called serving the respondent, and is often seen in movies and TV shows as "You've been served".
You cannot serve your papers yourself.
Option 1: Ask a Cop (FREE)
A sheriff or marshal can serve the opposing party for you which is a big help. This service is offered for FREE. You will however need the address of the abuser. To ask the sheriff to serve your papers, you must have an address or location for the other side (restrained person). If the other side is in jail, the sheriff can serve them. If the other side is in prison in Pennsylvania, prison staff, not the sheriff, will serve your papers.
Option 2: Ask a friend, relative or any adult (FREE)
You ask someone you know to be your server
- 18 or over, and
- not part of your case
Think about safety when choosing your server. Get step-by-step instructions for how to have someone else, not the sheriff, serve your court papers.
Option 3: Hire a specialized courier
You can also hire a courier called professional process server. You can search on Yelp or Google to get a list of options near you. Yelp Example . An example is ABC Legal Services.
You cannot hire regular couriers such as UPS, FedEx or US Postal Service unless in exceptional scenarios where the judge authorizes service by mail, but that's a whole different topic altogether.
Step 6: Present Evidence in a Court Hearing
Attend a hearing: The court holds a hearing within a couple of weeks where the evidence is examined. If there is sufficient supporting evidence as determined by a Judge, a full restraining order is issued. At this point it becomes a crime for the abuser to break the conditions of the restraining order.
Step 7. Collect the Final Order
After the hearing, a final order may be issued. You can take a paper copy of the order with you. The order is typically valid for five years.
There are no costs associated with a PFA Order.
- FREE forms : You can get the court forms for free, or prepare them using the guided experience below.
- FREE filing: There is fees for filing. Online filing platforms may charge a service fees
You can get a temporary protection order the same day as you file.
Courts can have a cutoff of around 2 p.m. for the same day service, so you need to file before then. Otherwise, the order would be issued the following day when courts open.
Courts are generally open Monday-Friday and closed on Saturday-Sunday.
The temporary order is valid until a formal hearing is held in which both parties need to be present. Typically a hearing is scheduled in 2 weeks of filing.
At the hearing a formal order may be issued
It is conceivable that following the submission of a civil protection order, the abuser particularly in domestic violence situations may react with anger due to the perceived loss of control over you and your household. In certain instances, the abuser may portray themselves as the victim and shift blame onto the actual victim they were mistreating.
The response of your abuser after the filing of a protection order is unpredictable. While a PFA can provide legal protection, one should not automatically assume that it guarantees safety. The initial weeks post-filing can be particularly precarious, contingent on your abuser's reaction.
Despite the safeguards intended by a DVPO, abusers may retaliate through various means, such as:
- Physical assault or violence
- Harming or taking away children
- Damaging jointly owned property
- Disregarding the order and persisting with threats, possibly through intermediaries
- Inflicting harm or causing harm to pets
- Harassing your loved ones for information
- Engaging in stalking behavior
- Initiating a retaliatory restraining order against you
- Spreading false information about you in court documents, online, or publicly
Following the submission of a domestic violence Protection order, it's important to continuously assess your situation and prepare for the potential escalation of your case into more violent territory.