Protection From Abuse filings in Custody Cases – a Word of Caution

by Jonathan C. Noble, Esq.

Lately, I have noticed an increasing number of persons filing Protection From Abuse (PFA) petitions against each other as a method to gain some sort of advantage in custody litigation.  Unless you are involved in a bona fide abuse situation, filing a PFA is usually not productive. In fact, it can be counter-productive.

Domestic Abuse is NEVER acceptable.

First, most family court judges are sensitive to this tactic. If you pursue a groundless PFA against the other parent, you run the risk of looking foolish and manipulative before the court. This is certainly not something you want. You can also be charged with the court costs, attorney’s fees, and other sanctions associated with filing a bogus PFA petition.

Second, I have seen far too many family court litigants file PFA petitions as a substitute for family therapy, relationship counseling, or mediation. I sometimes see questionable PFA filings occur when one person in a relationship is certain the relationship is ending, while the other person wants the relationship to continue, no matter what. In an ill-advised moment of anger or revenge, one (or both) people file a questionable PFA petition. Filing a PFA petition to keep the inevitable breakup from occurring, or for retaliating against the other person, is never a good idea. It can (and often does) backfire on the filing party.

Third, before, during and after custody litigation, it is almost always better for a child to have access to both parents. Even if one parent believes the children are better off by being only with them, the courts may not agree. Every case is different, but unless there is a clear danger to the child, children should usually have access to both parents. The courts are normally able to distinguish between one parent posturing in advance of a custody battle via a PFA filing, and a situation that actually requires court intervention to protect someone from being abused.

Some counties in Pennsylvania have a PFA intake coordinator. These coordinators help screen out potentially meritless PFA filings before they are filed. One Pennsylvania county (Montgomery) recently incorporated an innovative PFA Friend of the Court program where attorneys help facilitate agreements between the parties after a PFA petition has been filed, but before the matter proceeds before a judge for a final disposition. Basically, the parties voluntarily enter into written agreements (in the form of a court order), which is signed by the parties, signed by the judge, placed on the docket, and then become enforceable orders of court. The original PFA petitions are almost always voluntarily withdrawn on the record upon reaching an alternate, enforceable, written  agreement. The PFA Friend of the Court program is a win-win alternative to the standard PFA filing and hearing process.

PFA petitions are absolutely necessary in certain situations. It is important to remember that using a PFA petition for purposes other than what they were designed for, is never a good idea.