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All who seek temporary PFA in York County now meet with judge

Written by Brandie Kessler/York Daily Record | Aug 29, 2016 11:27 AM
York_county_pfa.jpg

Judge Joseph C. Adams, center, listens during a public editorial board meeting with domestic violence advocates at Martin Library in York on Feb. 16. York County's protection from abuse office refers people to domestic violence advocates, and Adams said he would like to see the involvement of advocates increase in PFA cases, especially at the early stages.(Photo: Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record)

(York) -- In early 2016, some people in York County who said they were victims of domestic violence said they had been denied a temporary protection from abuse order without seeing a judge.

Now, everyone who applies for that protection in York County meets face-to-face with a judge, said York County President Judge Joseph Adams.

The change was put in place after a York Daily Record/Sunday News investigation showed York County judges had denied the temporary orders in 2014 at one of the highest rates in the state. The YDR held a community forum after the stories published in February, and several people spoke of problems they said they encountered when they tried to get protection.  Adams, who attended the meeting, said he would look into the problems and consider ways to improve the process.

"In the past, some judges were meeting with every petitioner and others were meeting with the petition when the PFA statute required it," Adams said by email. "The state rule only requires that the court meet with a petitioner if the petition satisfies the statute. We felt that the better practice was to meet with the petitioner regardless of whether their petition met the requirements."

In 2014, York County judges denied temporary protection from abuse orders at one of the highest rates in the state. Why? Sean Heisey/York Daily Record

Adams said the face-to-face meeting, sometimes called an ex-parte hearing, allows judges to ask additional questions, so even if the petition doesn't meet the requirements to get a temporary order, the judge could get more information to see if the petitioner would qualify.

One of the reasons for that change was to "make sure that the process for handling a request for ex-parte hearing was the same regardless of which judge was handling the petition," Adams said.

Judges in York County varied widely in how often they denied and granted temporary PFAs in 2014, according to the YDR analysis of about 720 petitions. Judges Andrea Marceca Strong and John W. Thompson Jr., who has since retired, had the highest denial rates, about 70 percent, while Judge Todd Platts and two out-of-county judges, John L. Braxton and Lawrence F. Clark Jr., had the lowest denial rates, about 14 percent, 16 percent and 18 percent, respectively, according to the YDR analysis.

Heather Keller, legal advocacy director of YWCA York's ACCESS-York and Victim Assistance Center, said among the biggest changes she's seen since the YDR published its investigation is the focus on victim services, she said.

"PFA is not the option for everybody," Keller said. "When victims come through victim services, they're getting an array of options for support."

Safety planning and support like counseling are some of the services available. People who seek a temporary PFA have been more aware of those services since the YDR investigation was published, Keller said.

During the forum in February, two people said they had bad experiences with the PFA office at the York County courthouse. Both said they felt that courthouse workers might have been trying to dissuade them from filing the petition.

Prior to the forum, Adams had said that there was no screening process in York County, and that everyone who requested a temporary PFA had their case heard by a judge. But immediately after the forum, Adams said he would review some of what he heard and "make sure people feel comfortable in filing petitions, and that they don't feel that the system is stacked against them."

Keller said she has seen changes since the forum, including the ways in which the PFA office staff works with petitioners. She said the office staff now assists people with filling out the petition, but doesn't give any feedback that could influence a petitioner.

She credited the conversation that evolved out of the YDR investigation and community forum with influencing that change.

"Awareness is...half the battle," Keller said. "The public has to know what's going on to be able to have thoughts, feelings, reactions. That's an important role of the media."

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the York Daily Record.

Published in News, York

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