Should the Grounds for Obtaining a PFA in Pennsylvania be Modified to Include Emotional and Psychological Abuse?

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One of the uglier issues that we face as family lawyers is domestic violence. While the situations our clients are faced with often result in heated disagreements, sometimes that line is crossed and parties, both male and female must seek Protection from Abusethrough the Court. Recently, Allegheny County outpaced the state average for parties seeking temporary PFAs.

Often, when considering a PFA, parties are unsure as to what they have to allege and what constitutes “abuse” under the law. Under the Pennsylvania statute, abuse is defined as: “The occurrence of one or more of the following acts between family or household members, sexual or intimate partners or persons who share biological parenthood:

(1) Attempting to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault or incest with or without a deadly weapon.

(2) Placing another in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury.

(3) The infliction of false imprisonment pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S. § 2903 (relating to false imprisonment).

(4) Physically or sexually abusing minor children, including such terms as defined in Chapter 63 (relating to child protective services).

(5) Knowingly engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts toward another person, including following the person, without proper authority, under circumstances which place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury. The definition of this paragraph applies only to proceedings commenced under this title and is inapplicable to any criminal prosecutions commenced under Title 18 (relating to crimes and offenses).

Although many people believe that you have to suffer physical violence in order to obtain a PFA, more and more courts are considering request for protection from emotional or psychological abuse. This is especially true as often threats, intimidation and harassment can swiftly turn into bodily injury if not addressed quickly by the court. Some advocates argue that the state legislature in Pennsylvania will have to amend their definition of abuse to better encompass these issues and to protect move victims. However, this may pose a quandary to judges who often have to make credibility calls at hearings like these. Without tangible evidence of injuries, hearings can very easily turn into “he said” “she said”. This is especially troublesome when the lives and well-being of children are at stake.

Although plaintiffs typically file their own PFAs with the assistance of clerical staff and volunteers from local legal aid organizations, it can benefit them to hire a private attorney for the final hearing because they will have more time to develop an understanding of the case and can help the client navigate the ins and outs of the courtroom and negotiations. If you are scheduled for a PFA hearing and would like legal assistance, contact one of our Pennsylvania offices today!