October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  Domestic violence can affect anybody.  It knows no race, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic class.  It is starting to finally be recognized as a public problem instead of private one.

Two years ago the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission issued a report on a Staff Study of the Protection From Abuse Orders in Pennsylvania, which highlighted the weaknesses of the current Protection From Abuse (“PFA”) system.  The report starts with quotes from news articles about domestic and dating violence.  The report quotes Police Commissioner Joseph Bail speaking about a domestic incident in Chester, PA as saying “PFAs are only a piece of paper. How do you protect a woman with a piece of paper? The Legislature needs to put some teeth in the law.”

The report talks about statistics surrounding protection orders.  In 2015, 37,387 PFAs were requested.  Only 1,571 were denied final orders.  What happened to the other 35,000 is complicated; 32,356 were granted a temporary order; 5,817 were granted a final order; 7,167 were resolve be agreement of the parties; 7,685 were withdrawn; 10,986 plaintiffs did not appear to request a final order.

Nationally the statistics are also frightening.  According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence study:

  • about 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner;
  • 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.

The statistics only get scarier.  In 2017, 65% of all murder suicides involved an intimate partner.  This number decreased from 72% in 2011 and 2014.

The Joint State Government Report also discusses how to fix the PFA Act.  So…What has happened in the last two years?

One could look to the news and wonder if there has been much change.  People in Western Pennsylvania will remember the murder of Alina Shyket and the vigil recently held to mark the first anniversary of her death.  Please across the rest of Pennsylvania will all be able to recall different local articles about women and men who were murdered, stalked, injured, by an intimate partner.

Fortunately, the news has also been full of discussions of new legislation that has passed to help strengthen the laws to protect against abuse.  The legislature has tackled the following issues:

  • Abusers must surrender guns within 24 hours of conviction or PFA;
  • Victims have the option to be escorted to their homes by police after a PFA is issued;
  • The length of a PFA can be extended while the abuser is incarcerated;
  • Judges have been given more tools to protect victims;
  • Abusers convicted of a physical crime against their spouse are deemed to have consent to divorce; and
  • Strangulation has been made a separate crime.

The PFA Act is vital to the protection of victims and survivors.  If you need a PFA immediately, you can go to your local magistrate or local night court to obtain one until the next business day.  If it is a business day you can obtain a Temporary PFA from your local family courthouse.  The hearing for a temporary order may be ex parte, that means only the victim needs to attend.  If a temporary order is awarded it lasts for up to ten business days when a final hearing will be held.  The final hearing is important because it protects the due process rights of the accused.  At a final hearing, a PFA can be entered for up to three years.

Who can request a PFA?  PFAs protect any person who is in fear for their safety from a family member or romantic partner.  This does not protect against roommates or friends.  It does protect dating relationships as well as marital relationships and everything in between.

The person requesting the PFA must be in fear for his or her safety.  The court looks not only at the immediate situation that lead to the request, but to the history of threats, violence, stalking and intimidation within the relationship.  Per 23 Pa. C.S.A. §6102(A), the court is looking for evidence of:

(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 court system can be daunting, but with the assistance of an attorney as an advocate it becomes more manageable.

Domestic violence effects everyone involved.  I’m remiss to write anything about domestic violence without referring to the video where former Steeler Willie Gay his mother’s murder by her boyfriend affected him.

The information contained in this publication should not be construed as legal advice, is not a substitute for legal counsel, and should not be relied on as such. For legal advice or answers to specific questions, please contact one of our attorneys.

Julie R. Colton focuses her practice on all aspects of family law, including but not limited to issues of custody, child support, alimony and spousal support, equitable distribution, domestic violence, international custody, and prenuptial agreements. Her practice is located in Obermayer’s Pittbsurgh office. She can be reached at 412-288-2474 or at Julie.Colton@obermayer.com