Pennsylvanians claiming to be abused by relatives file about 40,000 protection from abuse petitions every year.

“They are significant in remedy,” Northumberland County President Judge Robert B. Sacavage said of PFAs, a civil order enacted by the state Legislature to protect victims of physical and sexual abuse.

Any current or former spouse or partner, parent, child or other family member who feels threatened or abused may file a court petition to keep the alleged abuser at bay, either through eviction or other banned contact.

The law does not cover abuse by strangers or roommates.

Obtaining a PFA in Northumberland County involves completing an eight-page petition that contains details of the alleged threat or abuse, past incidents, information about the defendant’s ownership of firearms and whether any custody issues exist.

A county court judge immediately either approves or denies a temporary order and schedules a hearing within 10 days.

At the hearing, both sides are present and testimony is taken under oath before a hearing officer.

Of the 37,917 petitions filed in 2005 in Pennsylvania, 17,136, or 44 percent, were granted following a hearing and 20,781 were either withdrawn or dismissed, said Ellen Kramer Adler, director of Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s legal department.

A majority of the petitioners are women who often are reluctant to follow through with court proceedings against their abuser, she said.

“It can take seven to 10 times before a woman can leave an abuser” because of a number of reasons, including reconciliation and lack of financial resources, Kramer Adler said.

In Northumberland County last year, 253 PFAs were filed, more than the total in Snyder, Union, Montour and Columbia counties combined, Sheriff Chad Reiner said.

So far this year, the sheriff’s department has handled 110 petitions, including six on Monday.

Two out of 10 petitions are denied, Sacavage said.

“It’s an unusual law,” he said, noting that decisions regarding temporary PFAs are made with only one side of an argument. “The state decided it was more important for victims to be protected.”

The formal hearing allows a court officer to “flesh out the information” and determine facts by cross-examining all parties under oath, he said.

If approved, a protection from abuse order may be effective for up to 36 months.

It could include evicting a defendant from a home or excluding him or her from entering a residence, granting temporary child custody to a plaintiff, barring a defendant from having contact with any or all family members and ordering the defendant to relinquish all weapons.

Anyone who violates the order could face a $1,000 fine and six-month jail sentence.

Sacavage said the law was enacted in the 1970s when “abuse of women had reached epidemic proportions.”

“It’s a powerhouse of the law, no question,” Sacavage said. “The design was to make it as a shield and we see it occasionally used as a sword.”

He didn’t have any statistics on how many people abuse the system, but said there are a few who “have an agenda” in seeking a PFA, such as against a foe in child custody cases.

“Of course there are people who abuse the justice system. It happens,” Kramer Adler said.

However, she said, most PFA petitioners are in genuine fear for their safety.

In 2006, Pennsylvania expanded the law by allowing PFAs to remain in effect for up to three years and requiring accused abusers to relinquish all their weapons within 24 hours of the order.

“The law gives protections to men and women who need it,” Kramer Adler said.

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