DIFFICULTY: Legal assistance is recommended
Initial Filing Fee: $0
In Pennsylvania there is one form of restraining order, or protective order, and it is the Protection from Abuse Order. This order, part of the Protection From Abuse Act, defines abuse in the following ways:
• Attempting to, or intentionally or recklessly causing bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape, spousal sexual assault or involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with or without a deadly weapon;
• Placing another in reasonable fear of imminent, serious bodily injury;
• False imprisonment
• Physically or sexually abusing minor children;
• Knowingly engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts toward another person, including following the person, under circumstances which place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury.
It is important to note, however, that this Act does not cover emotional abuse. In order to obtain a Protection From Abuse Order, or PFA, you need to either be an adult; emancipated minor; or the parent, adult household member, or guardian ad litem to file on behalf of a minor. The idea begins the PFA Act is that is allow a court to grant a protection order or approve any agreement made between the two parties to bring an end to the abuse. The PFA Order, however, only refers to civil cases, or those cases taken between one person and another separate from criminal charges. Thus, while criminal charges may take place at the same time, a PFA is delivered via a civil court. A PFA Order offers you and your children protection from: a family or household member (spouse, ex-spouse, sibling, parent, relative by blood or marriage, or a child) or a person whom you have a child in common with. For cases beyond this, you will need to speak with an attorney or seek criminal charges, which take place outside of the scope civil restraining or protective orders. Any protective order obtained within Pennsylvania is honored throughout the US, just as any order obtained outside of Pennsylvania in the US is honored within the state as well.
Step 1: File the Petition
To begin the process for obtaining a PFA Order you need to go to the courthouse for the Court of Common Pleas of the county where either of the parties involved reside or where the abuse took place and file a petition. The courthouse clerks will provide the necessary materials for you to fill out and will assist you in the process, which can take several hours. They are not, however, able or allowed to give advice.
Step 2: Obtain a Temporary or Emergency Protection Order
After you have filed the petition for a PFA Order you will go before a judge who will then review your petition and speak with you. Once the judge concludes this process they will either issue a PFA Order or, more likely, issue a temporary PFA Order and schedule a hearing to take place within 10 days. If it is too late to see a judge, after 3pm on a business day, then a district justice will issue an emergency PFA Order which will last until the next business day at the Court of Common Pleas, at which point you must return in order to obtain a temporary or full PFA Order.
Step 3: The Defendant is Served
Due to the nature of the case, the defendant, or abuser, is generally served by the sheriff’s department or one of the local law enforcement agencies in order to distance the accuser from them. Once the defendant has received the service the court order is completely binding and they may not violate its terms.
Step 4: The Hearing
At the hearing there are two possible ways to achieve a final protection order. The first is that the defendant and accuser reach an agreement on their own and submit this agreement in writing to the judge. The second is that the judge will listen to both parties’ arguments and make a judgment based upon that and any other available information.
Step 5: Understanding the Final PFA Order
When the hearing is concluded, should the judge issue a final protection order, the order may be instituted for up to three years at a time and is valid in all US states. The PFA may include any of the following:
• Direct the abuser not to abuse, threaten, stalk, or harass you or your minor children
• Direct the abuser to stay away from your place of residence, even if that is also the abuser’s residence
• Direct the abuser to stay away from your school or work
• Prohibit the abuser from having guns or obtaining a gun permit
• Award you temporary custody of your children and award or deny visitation (including supervised visitation) to the abuser
• Grant you temporary support for yourself as well as your and / or the abuser’s children
• Direct the abuser to pay you for losses incurred due to the abuse, including but not limited to attorney’s fees, relocation expenses, and medical bills
• Grant any other relief or terms necessary to bring an end to the abuse, including sending the abuser to a domestic violence program
Due to the upper time limit of three years, you will have to renew the order before it has concluded if you wish to avoid a period in which it is not legally binding. Otherwise, you risk having to begin the whole process again.