In Pennsylvania, domestic violence victims can get court-ordered protection or restraining orders known as Orders of Protection from Abuse (PFA).
If they decide they no longer want the PFA, they can request that the court cancel it, but only the court can make the determination to do this, which it will do by evaluating the safety of the domestic abuse victim.
What Is a Protection from Abuse Order?
An Order of Protection from Abuse is a protective order that ensures the safety of an abuse victim (the petitioner) when their abuser, the defendant, is close.
To get a PFA, the petitioner must be in a qualifying domestic relationship with the defendant, meaning they are a family member or in a romantic relationship. To qualify, the relationship does not have to be current.
PFA petitioners must be at least 18 years of age. If a petitioner under 18 wants a PFA, an adult must petition on the behalf of the minor child. If they do not qualify for a PFA, they might qualify for another type of protective order.
What Is an Emergency or Temporary PFA Order?
If a petitioner needs immediate protection at a time when the courts are not in session, they can contact local law enforcement or call 911 to find out which judge is on call and get their contact information. If the on-call judge believes the petitioner is in immediate danger, they may grant the petitioner an emergency PFA.
This order lasts only until the next business day giving the petitioner protection up until the court opens. When it does open, the petitioner can request an ex parte PFA (or temporary protection order) in court.
If the petitioner does not go to court on the following business day to get an ex parte court order, the emergency PFA will expire and the petitioner won't have any protection of any kind.
Ex Parte PFA Petitions
The court will give the petitioner an ex parte PFA if it finds that they or their children are in immediate danger from further abuse. The defendant will not be notified of the ex parte order and will not need to appear in court at this time.
An ex parte PFA lasts until the petitioner’s hearing for a final PFA. The defendant will be notified of the court hearing at which time they can give the court their side of the story. The hearing for the final order typically occurs within 10 business days from the ex parte order.
What Is a Final PFA Order?
During the final PFA hearing, both the petitioner and defendant present their stories supported through evidence, testimony and witnesses. From this information, a judge may grant the petitioner a final PFA.
The final protection order lasts for a maximum of three years. However, the court can extend it, if it believes there is still a danger to the petitioner or if the defendant has committed at least one act of abuse while the PFA was in effect.
Extensions of a PFA Order
If the abuser is incarcerated and due to be released within the next 90 days, or they were incarcerated and were released in the past 90 days, the petitioner does not need to prove either of the two above factors for an extension of the order.
An extension can be granted as many times as it is needed. Additionally, if there was a PFA violation and there is a criminal contempt hearing pending, the PFA is extended until at least the end of that hearing, or possibly even longer.
Canceling a Final PFA
Only a Pennsylvania court can cancel a final PFA, but the petitioner is the only person who can request the cancellation. When the petitioner asks the court to cancel a PFA, a judge will hold a hearing to determine the appropriateness of the cancellation, with the petitioner’s safety as the deciding factor.
If a judge believes that the petitioner will be safe without the court-ordered protection, and the request to cancel the PFA was made freely by the petitioner, it will cancel the final PFA.
Dismissing a PFA
When petitioning for a PFA, the victim must prove that they are in a qualifying relationship with the abuser and that the abuse they suffered was at that person’s hands. If the petitioner cannot demonstrate either of these facts, the court can dismiss the PFA at one of three times in the proceedings:
- After the ex parte PFA hearing.
- After the final PFA hearing.
- At a later date, per court approval.
Once the dismissal of the PFA takes place, the order’s protections cannot be enforced, and the petitioner has no protections. All associated orders are also dismissed, and the order is removed from law enforcement databases.
If there were no violations while it was in place, it will not show up on the defendant’s criminal record. Custody, living arrangements and contact orders also end at this time. If the defendant had been required to turn in a firearm due to the PFA order, they can get it back after the PFA has been dismissed.
Requesting a New PFA Order After Dismissal
While it is possible that the petitioner can request another PFA order after dismissal of the first, the court will likely not entertain the request unless new abuse allegations arise. Furthermore, the petitioner cannot use the facts and events of the original case to get a new PFA.
To get a new PFA, the petitioner must, once again, prove that abuse occurred at the defendant’s hand and as a result, they need the court’s protection. The previously granted PFA may be taken into consideration when determining if a new PFA is needed.
- If children are involved, you may be visited by social services or other government agency to determine the welfare of your children. Dropping a protection order not only puts you at risk, but also your children and other family members.
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.