Pennsylvania’s Protection From Abuse Act (PFA) sets forth a state-wide legal scheme (or plan) to protect family members and current or former partners from domestic violence, which is not just limited to physical abuse under the act.
The following article provides an overview of the PFA and its protections. To learn about protections available to victims of domestic violence, please see our section on domestic violence & divorce. For information on the criminal penalties of domestic violence, see Domestic Violence: Criminal Laws on our partner site.
Who is Protected Under the Act?
The PFA protects individuals from domestic violence and abuse by relatives and/or household members.
Who Qualifies as a “Household Member?”
“Household members” include individuals who live (or have lived) with the victim. But despite the term “household member,” the victim doesn’t actually need to reside in the same house as the abuser for the abuser to qualify as a “household member” under the PFA. For example, the PFA protects victims from abuse by a sibling who doesn’t live with the victim as well as a former or current sexual partner that never lived with the victim.
Below is a list of possible abusers that would qualify as a household member under the PFA:
- the victim's current or former spouse
- a person who lives (or lived) with the victim as a partner
- the victim’s brother or sister
- the victim’s parent or child
- an extended family member (e.g., through blood or marriage)
- the victim’s current or former sexual or intimate partner (even if they never lived with the victim), and
- someone the victim has a child in common with.
What if the Abuser is not a “Household Member?”
If the abuser does not qualify as a household member (such as a coworker or acquaintance), the PFA will not apply, but the victim can seek protection under other laws, depending on the type of abuse or violence, including possibly laws preventing stalking. For more information on what to do if stalked, click here.
What is the Definition of Domestic Abuse in Pennsylvania?
The PFA defines “domestic abuse” as one or more of the following acts (including the attempt to commit one or more the following acts) between family or household members:
- bodily injury, rape, or incest
- putting a protected person in reasonable fear of immediate, serious bodily injury
- false imprisonment
- physical or sexual abuse of a child, and
- other actions that repeatedly put a protected person in reasonable fear of serious bodily injury, such as stalking or harassment.
How Can I Protect Myself from Abuse?
Pennsylvania courts can issue “protection from abuse orders” (PFAs) when there has been threatened or actual abuse by a family member or household member as defined above. If the abuse is committed by an individual who was never been a household member as defined above, a stalking protection order can be issued.
If you are over 18, you can file legal paperwork called “Request for Protection from Abuse,” which, if granted, will protect you, your children and your family members from the abuser. If the victim is a minor, then a parent, adult household member, or guardian ad litem (child’s representative in court proceedings) can file a “Request for Protection from Abuse” on the child’s behalf.
A PFA order prevents the abuser from contacting the victim and requires the abuser to stay away from the victim’s home, school, and/or place of employment. It requires the abuser to relinquish all firearms to a local police department. Abusers that violate PFA orders can be arrested.
For more information on domestic violence resources in Pennsylvania, contact HELP for Pennsylvania victims of domestic violence through their website here.
How Long Do PFA Orders Last?
In Pennsylvania, there are a few types of PFA orders and each has a different timeframe.
Emergency PFA Order
If you need a PFA order during normal business hours, you can file the paperwork in your local county courthouse, called an Ex Pare Temporary PFA as discussed below. When you need immediate protection on a night or weekend when courts are closed, call your local police department or 911. If a judge thinks you are in immediate danger, he or she will grant you an “Emergency PFA Order,” which is a stay-away and no contact order that lasts until the next business day when your case can be heard by a judge. The emergency PFA will not expire until you have had the chance to tell your story to a judge.
Ex Parte Temporary PFA
“Ex parte” PFAs refer to proceedings that allow judges to issue PFA orders without the alleged abusers being in court to defend themselves. An Ex Parte PFA order is based only upon information you provide and is temporary: lasting only about 10 business days or until the date of a court hearing where the abuser can defend him/herself.
A “Final PFA” order is a permanent protection from abuse order, which typically lasts up to three years. A Final PFA order may be granted after you and your abuser have both had the opportunity to tell your story to a judge. In certain circumstances, such as where the abuse is ongoing, a Final PFA order can last longer than three years.
If you have questions about domestic abuse protection orders in Pennsylvania, you should contact an experienced family law attorney for help.
For a complete list of the laws regarding domestic violence and domestic abuse protection orders in Pennsylvania, see 23 Pa.C.S.A. §6101 et seq. and 18 Pa.C.S.A. §3123(a).