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How to get a restraining order in Pennsylvania

What is a Protection From Abuse order, who can get one, what it covers, where to go if you need one, and how quickly you can get one in Pennsylvania.

The Philadelphia Family Court, on Arch St. in Philadelphia
The Philadelphia Family Court, on Arch St. in PhiladelphiaRead moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Sometimes you need to take extra precautions in order to stay safe.

Domestic violence is common in the United States; about one in four women and one in 10 men have been physically or sexually abused or stalked by an intimate partner, according to the CDC.

An analysis by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice indicates that domestic violence incidents rose by about 8.1% during the pandemic.

There are ways to get help, including what is commonly called a “restraining order.”

In Pennsylvania, restraining orders are technically known as “protection orders.” And there are three main types depending on your relationship to the person you’re seeking protection from.

The most common is known as a “Protection from Abuse” order (PFA). In Philadelphia County alone, there were about 8,600 new PFA cases filed in 2019 (the most recent year for which data were available), according to a report from the Administrative Offices of the Pennsylvania Courts.

» READ MORE: Domestic violence victims need crucial support during the coronavirus.

If you’re a survivor of domestic violence, PFAs can provide “extraordinary relief,” says Susan Pearlstein, senior attorney of Philadelphia Legal Assistance’s family law unit. The orders can last for up to three years and can forbid someone from contacting you or evicting them from your home, among other protections.

The process of getting a PFA is often intimidating and can be difficult to navigate. So, with that in mind, here are some things you should know if you need to get one:

Who can get a protection order?

You are eligible to get a PFA based on your relationship to the person you are seeking protection from. According to the Philadelphia Bar Association, that includes abuse by a:

  1. Former or current spouse, sexual, or intimate partner

  2. Parent or child

  3. Person otherwise related to you by blood or marriage

State law specifically defines abuse to include behaviors such as physical assault, sexual assault, threats of abuse, false imprisonment, and stalking. But not all types of abuse are covered under the law, Pearlstein says.

“Most kinds of financial abuse, or threats of deportation for undocumented victims of abuse, threats to take someone’s children away — that’s not covered in our statute,” Pearlstein says. If you are in any of these situations, you may be able to get help by contacting the Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline (1-866-723-3014).

What can a protection order do?

The answer depends on your situation and what kind of protections you ask for. But overall, an order can require that a person:

  1. Not contact you in any way, including through third parties

  2. Not stalk, harass, abuse, or threaten you

  3. Keep away from your home, school, or work

  4. Be evicted from your home if you share housing

  5. Relinquish weapons to police

Orders can also temporarily award you custody of children and require someone to temporarily pay child support, as well as any financial losses due to abuse.

» READ MORE: How to get unwanted firearms out of your home

What happens if someone violates a protection order?

Violating the terms of a PFA is a crime, and can result in jail time, fines, or both, depending on the situation and who you contact when the order is violated, says Kathleen O’Malley, managing attorney of the Women Against Abuse Legal Center.

  1. If you contact the police, a violation could result in “criminal contempt” charges.

  2. If you file for “civil contempt” in Family Court, it could result in up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

“Criminal contempt is obviously much harsher, [and] typically, it’s what we advise because it has real teeth to it,” says Leslie Allen, supervising attorney of PLA’s family law unit. “And that is because violation of a PFA is a crime unto itself. So, the person doesn’t need to have done anything else that is criminal behavior, other than have violated the terms of the order.”

» READ MORE: These are your rights if police show up at your door

How do I file for a protection order?

In Philadelphia, you can file a petition for a PFA by going to Family Court (1501 Arch St.) during normal business hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays.

There, you can find its Domestic Violence Intake Unit, which will have court staff available to interview you and help you fill out and file the PFA paperwork. Filing must be done in person; there is no way to submit your paperwork online.

There is no cost to file for a PFA, and you do not need an attorney to do so (though having one, if possible, is beneficial).

It is possible to get a PFA the same day you file. The process can take several hours depending on how busy the court is, so it is best to arrive early — usually by about 10 a.m., if possible, Allen says. That way, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to meet with a judge for an initial “ex parte” hearing — a hearing where your abuser is not present — on the same day that you file. At that hearing, you can be granted a temporary PFA that lasts until a second hearing that will determine how long your PFA will last, which typically happens within 10 days.

If you are in an emergency situation and the Family Court is closed, you can file for an emergency PFA at the Criminal Justice Center (1301 Filbert St.). The CJC has an emergency filing unit that operates whenever Family Court is closed, including on weekends and holidays.

Generally, to successfully file at the emergency unit, the abuse must have been very recent — usually within the past 24 hours, Pearlstein says. If you are turned away, you can still file your petition at Family Court during its next business day.

» READ MORE: Domestic violence an increasing concern in Philadelphia area because of COVID-19, study suggests.

Regardless of where you file your petition, though, it’s important to know that you really only need to provide information about current and past abuse — you don’t need evidence or witnesses at this point (and often, final order hearings come down to testimony alone).

However, you can have either filing unit take photos of injuries, and bring proof of abuse if you have it, but it is “absolutely not a requirement” in order to file, says Molly Callahan, director of the Women Against Abuse Legal Center.

What happens after I file?

After you file your petition and have your initial hearing, a judge will decide whether to issue a temporary PFA. In most cases the temporary order is granted — about 98.8% in 2019 for Philadelphia County, according to AOPC data.

After that, the person you are filing against needs to be “served” the order, as well as other legal documents — meaning essentially that they receive them in person (and not through the mail or electronically).

If you go through Family Court, the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office will serve the temporary order. That means that you shouldn’t have to do anything to make sure the papers are served to the person you’re seeking protection from, Callahan says. After the order is served, the sheriff’s office should send an “affidavit of service” to Family Court proving that service happened.

But if you are granted an order at the emergency filing unit, you’ll have to have someone else serve it, which requires work on your part. The best thing to do, Allen says, is take the order to the police in the district where the person lives, and have the police serve it. But if you are not comfortable contacting the police, you can also have an adult who is not related to you serve the order and fill out an affidavit of service, O’Malley says. You should not serve the order personally, Allen says.

After that, you will need to attend the second hearing where a judge will determine whether you get a final order for your PFA, and how long it will last. Both you and the person you filed against will be able to testify as well as provide witnesses and evidence, and potentially reach an agreement about the order. You must show up for that hearing — otherwise, the petition and temporary order can be dismissed.

» READ MORE: Your rights as a tenant: Check out our tenants' rights guide.

Where can I go for help?

If all this sounds overwhelming, help is available. Callahan and O’Malley recommend starting with the Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline (1-866-723-3014), available 24 hours a day. Hotline counselors can help you with safety planning, crisis intervention, and resources. They can also refer you to agencies that provide legal aid, emergency housing, and other services.

Safety planning, O’Malley says, is particularly important.

“It’s really just thinking through with somebody in advance what they’re going to do if things get bad, and what they’re going to do if they’re going to be leaving that relationship,” O’Malley says. It is especially important to have a safety plan when you file for a PFA or leave a violent relationship, she adds, as those times can be particularly dangerous.

» READ MORE: Domestic violence centers are expecting a surge as coronavirus keeps abusers home.

You can reach out to a number of organizations in Philadelphia directly for help, including:

  1. Women Against Abuse, 215-686-7082

  2. Philadelphia Legal Assistance, 215-981-3838

  3. Women in Transition, 215-751-1111

  4. Lutheran Settlement House, 215-426-8610 ext. 1236

  5. Congreso de Latinos Unidos, 215-763-8870

  6. SeniorLAW Center, 215-988-1242

» READ MORE: Where to find sexual assault support and counseling resources in the Philadelphia region

When going to Family Court to file your PFA petition, you may be able to get help from attorneys and paralegals from some of those organizations — both with filing your petition, and with representation in court. But it is important to note that while PFAs are tool that can help you, they don’t solve everything, so it’s important to reach out for the additional help you might need.

“The whole PFA, at the end of the day, is a piece of paper,” Allen says. “But it’s about creating really clear boundaries for people who live in situations where boundaries have eroded.”

Expert sources:
  1. Molly Callahan, Esq., director of the Women Against Abuse Legal Center.

  2. Kathleen O’Malley, JD, managing attorney of the Women Against Abuse Legal Center.

  3. Susan Pearlstein, JD, senior attorney for Philadelphia Legal Assistance’s family law unit.

  4. Leslie Allen, JD, supervising attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance’s family law unit.

» READ MORE: Find more of our guides to life in Philly: Read our most useful stories here.