HARRISBURG — Advocates say that in the vast majority of cases, protection from abuse orders do exactly what they’re supposed to do, but life-or-death challenges play out across the state over and over as officials try to recognize and intervene when abusers are ready to ignore these court orders to harm or kill victims.
Close to 40,000 people obtained protection from abuse orders each year, according to the state Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
Last year, 111 people were killed in crimes of domestic violence in Pennsylvania, down from 2018 when 122 people were killed in acts of domestic violence, said Julie Bancroft, chief public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
In Snyder County, Christopher T. Fernanders, is accused of using a homemade P80 polymer 9mm pistol, also known as a ghost gun to fatally shoot his former wife, Heather Sue Campbell, 46, of Trevorton, and Matthew T. Bowersox, 52, of Mifflinburg, court records said. Fernanders, 55, of Paxinos, had to relinquish his weapons about a week before the murders due to a protection from abuse order taken out by Campbell who alleged in court documents that he threatened her life.
The coalition doesn’t compile data on the number of murders committed by people who were subject to PFAs, Bancroft said.
“A protection from abuse order is an effective tool and an important tool. For a lot of people it works to get victims to safety and allows them to rebuild their lives,” Bancroft said. “Is it perfect? Is it fail-proof? No. There is no law that going to stop someone who is really determined,” she said.
Pennsylvania victim advocate Jennifer Storm said that PFAs are generally a useful tool but they simply don’t provide enough safety when the abuser is prepared to kill the victim.
“Where they are not helpful is when the abuse has that particular mental abnormality that leads toward them taking a life,” she said.
She said the best approach is to make sure victims are connected to trained counselors and advocates who can try to help recognize when the victim’s life is in danger.
Potential remedy stalled at Capitol
Legislation intended to do a better job preventing PFA violators from attacking their victims has been introduced in the General Assembly.
Named after Alina Sheykhet, a 20-year-old University of Pittsburgh student killed by her ex-boyfriend after she got a PFA against him, Alina’s Law would give judges more discretion to require electronic monitoring for individuals subject to a PFA.
Alina’s Law was passed unanimously by the state Senate in December 2017 two months after Alina’s murder. The legislation didn’t move at all in the state House before the end of the 2017-18 legislative session.
The legislation has been reintroduced in both chambers of the General Assembly but hasn’t moved in either chamber.
“The only explanation that we’ve been given is that they’re busy with other issues at the Capitol,” Alina’s mother Elly Sheykhet said Friday. “We’re stuck. Something needs to be done.”
While the measure passed the state Senate unanimously, advocates have not embraced the proposal and the American Civil Liberties Union is opposed to it.
The Coalition Against Domestic Violence has taken a neutral position on the legislation, Bancroft said.
Advocates worry that electronic monitoring would give victims “a false sense of security,” she said.
Storm said that judges already have the discretion to order that people subject to PFA orders be forced to wear electronic monitors. The problem is that there is no uniformity from county-to-county in determining when electronic monitoring should be used.
There have also been issues in the past where judges ordered that abusers wear monitors, only to have counties use passive monitoring instead of active monitoring that would immediately issue an alert if the abuser is getting too close to the victim. As a result, there has been a greater focus on ensuring that when electronic monitoring is ordered, that the system provides active monitoring to better protect victims, she said. The move to active monitoring would be more expensive. Under Alina’s Law, the offender would be required to pay for the cost.
Bancroft said there have been cases where abusers cut off their electronic monitors and go after their victims.
Liz Randol, legislative director for the ACLU in Pennsylvania said that the proposal would create “an extraordinary restriction of civil liberties and a vast increase of governmental surveillance for thousands of people” who would be forced to pay for the cost of monitoring their movements.
“The device, locked onto the arm or ankle, would continuously track a person’s location and transmit that data to the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP). The state police could maintain this personal data indefinitely,” she said. “In addition, this law could impose significant financial costs for those monitored. When counties impose electronic monitoring costs for those on probation, the county charges those probationers between $5 and $25 dollars a day,” Randol said.
In Alina’s case, her killer had been criminally charged in two different counties in addition to her move to get a PFA. Based on those criminal charges, the county judges could have made electronic monitoring a condition of bail, but they didn’t, Randol said.