October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. And, earlier this month the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Court (“AOPC”) issued its summary of statistics related to this form of action.
A note of history is in order. Pennsylvania did not formally define “abuse” or provide a remedy for its commission until 1990. Before that date, the only mechanism available to address it was in the criminal system, typically as an assault. The statute has been amended several times and, at this writing, there are bills circulating in Harrisburg to expand the remedies even further.
It is a popular form of action. In 2016, there were just over 39,000 requests for relief requested. That is 100-150 per day depending on whether weekend days are counted. Contrast this with 33,000 divorces in the same time period and 73,000 marriages.
Persons who seek protection under this statute need to allege facts that indicate they are in immediate danger of some physical form of harm from a household member, intimate partner or co-parent. The Courts are charged with reviewing the allegations without a hearing and deciding whether immediate relief is to be granted before a hearing. Because judges prefer to be safe rather than sorry eighty-eight percent (88%) of the actions filed resulted in a temporary order before a hearing took place. These orders range from a prohibition against further abusive behavior to exclusive possession of a common residence.
The AOPC also looked at the ultimate disposition of these cases after a hearing was held. These statistics are also somewhat harrowing. Over a five year period twenty-nine percent (29%) of petitioners did not bother to show up for their hearings. Another twenty percent (20%) withdrew their petition when the hearing was called into court. There is the rub. 39,000 filings and yet only about half ever proceed. Of those that do proceed 40% result in an agreement. These agreements can also range from total exclusion from a common household to less restrictive stay away or minimal contact orders. Thirty-two percent (32%) of the cases which actually are called for hearing result in the grant of an abuse order. Eight percent (8%) proceed to trial and the court finds that relief is not merited and the case is dismissed. The AOPC stats report that in nine percent (9%) of cases the temporary order granted before the hearing is dismissed. This seems somewhat vague in that those cases either merited entry of a protection order or did not. If dismissal of the temporary order equates with dismissal of the case, it means that for those cases that actually proceed to trial the odds are slightly better than fifty percent (50%) that a finding of abuse will be made and a remedy enforced. http://www.pacourts.us/news-and-statistics/news?Article=950
The good news, if there can be any on this subject, is that the number of requests for relief has declined by seven percent (7%) over five years. This would tend to indicate that we have become less violent or that judges have started to ferret out spurious filings and the word has gotten out. The bad news, more than 650 times each week Pennsylvanians are appearing at Courthouse doors with allegations that judges deem worthy of temporary emergent protection orders.