500 Hours In

This month marks a personal milestone for me: over the past two and a half years, I’ve put in 500 hours (at least!) as a volunteer legal advocate for plaintiffs in protection from abuse cases in our county. Since this is both worthwhile and unseen work (many of those who know me probably don’t even realize I do this), I wanted to sketch the experience for anyone who’s interested in learning more or maybe even pitching in.

In PA, victims of abuse by a family member, a member of their household, or a current or former intimate partner can seek a civil remedy called a Protection from Abuse order (or “PFA”). PFAs are granted to those plaintiffs who can convince a judge by “a preponderance of the evidence” (that is, just a little tipping of the scales in their favor) that they are in reasonable fear of bodily injury. Verbal and emotional abuse alone don’t typically amount to enough to tip the balance, although if the behavior is egregious enough—like direct threats, or relentless and alarming texts that amount to harassment—it may still qualify as abuse under the PA statute. Remedies under the PFA Act include the confiscation of firearms, eviction from the victim’s home, and a thorough no-contact order that can run from as little as a few days to as long as three years.*

People seek PFAs against their spouses, parents, children (usually adult children), casual intimate partners, cousins, longstanding significant others, “exes” that they thought they’d left behind in history, grandparents, etc. Parents can petition for protection on behalf of their minor children, and sometimes a plaintiff will include both herself and her children in her request. In recent years, the law has been clarified to expand past the default “domestic violence” scenario of husband abusing wife (or vice versa), and now teens in relationship with other teens, people in same-sex relationships, unmarried partners, and pretty much anyone being abused by a blood-relative have standing to petition for a PFA.

Plaintiffs come to court with vastly different motives and back-stories. On the less-than-worthy side of the spectrum, there are those who have hit upon the PFA as a means to retaliate against a partner (who has perhaps filed legitimately for protection earlier!), or as a way to evict an unwanted family member, or as a strategy for controlling custody of shared children.

Most plaintiffs that I talk to, though, have indeed experienced something scary, though to varying degrees. Taking the step of bringing the abuse to the courthouse is a significant one, because suddenly your business becomes public—and if a person is truly in a dangerous situation, the risk of angering the abuser is real. (Statistically, this is the most perilous time for an abuse victim, in fact; murders of abuse victims are often associated with the victim attempting to get community or legal help.) For this reason, some abuse victims endure years of harsh treatment before seeking a PFA, something that even the judges trying these cases may find difficult to comprehend.

I think it’s fair to say that the majority of cases that come through our courthouse fall between these two extremes. Sometimes there have been a couple incidents of violence, and the victim has been advised by the police to seek a protection order. Sometimes mental illness, a brain injury, addiction, or dementia will flare up in a family member and send them into a dangerous rage. Sometimes just one frightening outburst is enough to propel a victim to take a firm line, with the help of the law. Sometimes an abusive partner from the past shows up in a person’s present life in a sinister way, and the memory of what happened before leaves a plaintiff reasonably afraid it could happen again. Often plaintiffs express that it took a while for it to dawn on them that their significant other was not who he or she seemed to be when they started the relationship, and that the minor irritations that characterized that beginning were now full-grown into a frightening revelation of the person’s true nature.

Regardless of their starting point, nearly all plaintiffs—women, men, the elderly, teens, gay, straight, well-educated, refugees, mothers, fathers, anyone you can imagine—have no idea what to expect when they come to the courthouse on their initial hearing date. They’ve usually been given a temporary protection order by a judge in an ex parte hearing (without the defendant present), and now it’s a week later: the papers have been served on the alleged abuser, and it’s time for a courtroom confrontation. For many of them, the trauma of the abuse, the dread of facing their abuser in court, and the utter unfamiliarity of the courthouse with its many rules and formalities leave them in a state of high anxiety. And this is where advocates like me can come in handy.

A 1988 amendment to the PFA Act provides that plaintiffs in these cases have the right to be accompanied to any hearing by a domestic violence counselor or advocate. What this looks like in real life may vary from court to court and from year to year: advocates are neither attorneys nor court staff, and though our presence is a matter of law, the shape of our role is defined at the discretion of the particular court. So advocates working in other PA counties may have different duties than mine, even though we share similar legal limits (such as the fact that we cannot give legal advice, only legal information, which essentially translates to limiting my input to information that I could put in a flier and distribute to any plaintiff, to let them know what to expect in court that day).

As I construe my role, I am present in the courthouse to reduce the anxiety of unrepresented plaintiffs, to look out for their interests as best I can, and to contribute to the smooth running of the PFA court proceedings, a complex legal machine that involves bailiffs, attorneys, a judge, sheriff’s deputies, prothonotaries, court reporters, and court administrators, at the very least. My interactions with these plaintiffs have a certain sameness to them: I’m one of the friendly people who greets them when they arrive, shows them into the private waiting area, checks on their intentions for their hearing, and walks them through their options and what to expect in the courtroom. More often than not, I watch their anxiety drop down by a couple notches as I answer questions and calmly offer an overview of that day’s court session.

On the other hand, each individual plaintiff is unique, and that means that every single PFA court session has the potential to throw something new our way. In one day we may go from a slow morning with only a handful of brief conversations to a full-blown afternoon circus with a medically needy plaintiff, kids who need watching while mom’s in court, a defendant’s attorney looking to negotiate an agreement, somebody needing an interpreter, someone else who needs a phone, an incorrectly numbered docket, and a belligerent or mentally unstable defendant. Fortunately I work with a team of competent people, and between us we (almost) always manage to sort things out in the short time we have before the judge takes the bench.

I realize I’m helpless to change the course of these plaintiffs’ cases, or of their lives. I don’t usually know the facts behind their PFA petitions anyway, and I cannot speak up for them in the courtroom. But there’s nothing that beats the feeling when I walk someone to the elevator after their court appearance, and they take their leave of me saying something like, “I am so glad you were here—I couldn’t have gotten through this without your help.”

Most don’t think to say it, so I cherish it when it’s spoken. Because that’s really what I’m here for: to show up, dive in, stick with it—and make somebody’s tough day a little more bearable.


* Information in this post is for educational purposes only, and may not still be accurate when you read it. For up-to-date information about PA’s PFA law and how to file for a protection order, visit the website of the PA Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Information for residents of other states can be found through the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence website.  If you need legal help, please consult a licensed attorney.