During my time at Rutgers School of Law-Camden, I was very active in the Domestic Violence Project and the Domestic Violence Clinic. I provided legal information to victims of domestic violence in Camden County, NJ who were trying to obtain a Final Restraining Order (FRO) and represented clients in their court hearings. I quickly became used to New Jersey’s DV law and the protections it gave to victims. Having had personal experience with Pennsylvania’s DV system, I already knew that their protections were inferior to NJ. I never realized how inferior until I returned to PA.
I’m going to focus on final orders in this post. In NJ, when a person wants to get protection from somebody who is abusing them, they obtain an FRO. The PA equivalent of this is a Protection From Abuse order, or PFA. Each state has their own statute that specifically addresses what someone needs to prove in order to get one of these court orders. They’re similar but have a couple significant differences.
NJ requires a 3-step assessment. First, the victim and abuser must have one of the following relationships: current or former household members (this includes roommates), spouse or former spouse, dating relationship, or have a child in common. Second, the abuser must have committed at least one of the following offenses: homicide, assault, terroristic threats, kidnapping, criminal restraint, sexual assault, criminal sexual contact, lewdness, false imprisonment, criminal mischief, burglary, criminal trespass, harassment, or stalking. Finally, the victim needs to show an immediate danger of additional abuse.
PA has a fairly similar law. Once again, you have to show one of the following relationships: family or household members, sexual or intimate partners, or have a child in common. The abuser must have committed at least one of the following offenses: inflicting bodily injury, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault, incest, false imprisonment, placing another in fear of bodily injury, physical or sexual abuse of a child, or stalking or harassment which puts the other person in fear of bodily injury.
One of the key differences between the two states’ statutes is that PA requires that the victim be in fear of bodily injury or that the offense involve some element of bodily injury. NJ does not require this. NJ takes it a step further and includes acts which serve no purpose other than to seriously annoy the victim, such as repeatedly sending large amounts of text messages, continuing to contact the person after being told to stop, and using Facebook as a means to harass or intimidate the victim. These all fall under the general category of mental or emotional abuse. PA has a separate statute to try to prevent this type of behavior, but it doesn’t provide the same protection as the domestic violence law. I still remember sitting in court in PA and listening to a woman who had left her husband tell the story of how the man sent her hundreds of text messages despite being told to stop. The judge’s response? “Well, that’s harassment, that’s not domestic violence. Tell me what he did that’s domestic violence.” I think my jaw hit the floor.
It may not seem serious, but the main characteristic of an abusive relationship is control. Repeated contacts like this are often used by the abuser as a means to continue to control the victim even after the relationship has ended. It’s also a way to continue psychological abuse by showing the victim that even though they’ve left the relationship, the abuser will still be in their life. Physical abuse is not the only way an abuser victimizes somebody and PA has failed to recognize this by requiring bodily injury or a threat of it in order to obtain a PFA.
The other main difference between the two laws is the length of time a protection order can last. A PFA is good for a MAXIMUM of 3 years, which means it could theoretically last a shorter amount of time. NJ provides protection under an FRO for life. What this means is even in the most serious cases of abuse, victims and abusers in PA are aware that the PFA will eventually come to an end. The PFA can be extended, but that requires the victim to go through the whole process of telling their story and facing their abuser again which can revictimize her/him. NJ allows the FRO to stay in place until the defendant petitions the court and proves that it’s no longer necessary. In my experience, this seldom happens.
So why doesn’t PA take NJ’s lead and strengthen its DV laws? I had the opportunity to ask a judge who presided over family court and PFA hearings this question, and essentially it comes down to guns. Having a PFA or FRO against you means that you cannot own or possess any type of firearm, including ones used for hunting. The PA legislature and judges are hesitant to grant orders or change laws that would make it more difficult or impossible for a person to have a firearm. According to this judge, the right to bear arms is more important than protecting a victim of domestic violence. Even as a strong believer in the Constitution, I found that assessment disconcerting.
I think PA needs to take note of what its neighbor is doing. The PA State Legislature should follow NJ’s lead in protecting victims of domestic violence. We all need to realize that physical abuse isn’t the only kind of abuse and expand the law to include those acts meant to control and demean. Only then can victims believe that it’s actually possible to safely leave an abusive relationship and move on with their lives.