caucasian woman and her two young children on a couch with a white brick wall in the background

A PFA Can Be the First Step Toward Freedom from Domestic Abuse

caucasian woman and her two young children on a couch with a white brick wall in the background

In Pennsylvania, anyone enduring domestic abuse can seek relief through the PFA (Protection From Abuse) process. If successful, a judge may order the abuser to stop or face serious legal consequences. Although we have heard some people question the effectiveness of “just a piece of paper,” NLS clients like Charlotte have said that obtaining the PFA was their first step toward freedom and safety.

Charlotte’s husband had begun hitting her after they were married. His rage-filled outbursts later escalated to include their two sons. Over time, he threatened them with a knife, a heavy mallet, the car, and the refrain, “Some people just need hit.”

NLS attorneys help people like Charlotte to secure PFA orders every day. These protective orders can help keep victims safe from their abusers.

The need for protection from domestic abuse is enormous. Approximately 3.5 million women1 and men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner in the United States every year. About 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men experience physical or sexual violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.

When family violence is added into the equation, the numbers are startling. According to data compiled by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, more than 39,000 new petitions for PFAs were filed in the commonwealth – 5,146 in the NLS four-county service area alone.

A Daunting Task Without Help

Like so many victims, Charlotte never expected to need protection from the courts. When she made the difficult decision to seek a PFA, she could not afford an attorney, so she tried to navigate the process on her own. Fear and anxiety kept her from following through with the entire process.

Obtaining a PFA without legal counsel can be a formidable task. Victims of domestic violence must:

  1. Get the petition from the courthouse.
  2. Accurately and completely fill out a petition, detailing the incidents of abuse as well as file the forms.
  3. Have a judge review the petition for issuance of a Temporary PFA which is valid until a final hearing is held.
  4. Attend and represent themselves at a hearing for a Final PFA.

Not only do NLS attorneys help clients secure a PFA, their legal counsel is invaluable in evaluating each victim’s individual circumstances. For example, a PFA can keep an abuser away from minor children, force an abuser to be removed from a home, require an abuser to surrender weapons and ammunition to the authorities and prohibit them from getting more, or grant any other relief deemed appropriate by the judge. An NLS attorney can ensure these circumstances are addressed appropriately in the PFA by consulting with their clients, the victims, and zealously advocating for the best legal solutions available.

Without an experienced attorney to guide them through the process, survivors can feel re-victimized by the emotional and financial drain of obtaining a PFA. As the victim and abuser each have the chance to testify and present evidence, victims without an attorney are at a serious, perhaps life-threatening, disadvantage not just at this initial stage, but also at any subsequent appeal stages.

'Our Most Effective Tool for Stopping Domestic Violence'

Despite these downsides, the PFA is a vitally important tool for victims of domestic abuse. The Institute of Policy Integrity has reported that survivors of domestic violence “rated the filing of a protective order as one of their most effective tools for stopping domestic violence, second only to leaving the abuser” and that “access to legal services increases the likelihood that a victim will successfully be able to obtain a protective order against their assailant.”

Fortunately, after Charlotte failed to secure a PFA by herself, someone told her about NLS. Our attorneys stood by her from their first conversation through the final court hearing and even beyond. Finally, Charlotte’s now ex-husband would never threaten or harm his family again.

Most importantly, though, Charlotte’s NLS experience changed the way she thought about herself. “My NLS lawyer spent time talking to me about what abuse is. I hadn’t recognized a lot of what my ex-husband had done as abuse,” she said.

“One thing became crystal clear: Something I thought I had no choice in was actually abuse, and I didn’t have to go back to it.”

1 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2015 Data Brief
2 Supporting Survivors: The Economic Benefits of Providing Civil Legal Assistance to Survivors of Domestic Violence, Institute of Policy Integrity, New York University School of Law, July 2015

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