Protection hearing process revised

HOLLIDAYSBURG – The Blair County judges’ weekly meeting had just begun on Tuesday when a representative of the Protection From Abuse Office appeared and said she had a complaint that needed court review.

President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva said she was required to immediately hold a short hearing for the person seeking the PFA to testify about the need for protection.

The hearing lasted only a short time, but it represents a new step in the Blair County PFA process that was mandated by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last month.

A three-judge panel, including Senior Judge Eugene B. Strassburger III and Judges Mary Jane Bowes and Paula Francisco Ott, ruled that just presenting a sworn petition seeking protection to a judge is not enough.

There must be a hearing in which the alleged victim appears before a judge, who then either approves the PFA or not. The hearing involves only the judge and the victim, not the alleged perpetrator or his attorney.

The new procedure must be implemented by county courts statewide because of an April 17 Superior Court ruling that found the practice of simply reading a petition and signing it does not comply with the PFA law because it increases the risk that the other party’s rights may be violated.

There have been some “glitches,” Kopriva pointed out.

In one instance recently, all the judges were on the bench and not available for a face-to-face hearing with the alleged victim. Kopriva said the person requesting the PFA had to wait an hour for a hearing, which was not ideal.

This week, there was a case involving an elderly victim who was hospitalized, and his wife – the alleged perpetrator – wanted to see him. The question that was undecided as of Tuesday was whether a judge would have to go to the hospital for a hearing.

Despite these types of unusual situations, Kopriva believes that the new system is working.

When someone is in need of protection, he or she goes to the PFA Office in the Courthouse and fills out a form that includes written reasons why protection is needed.

The person then swears that what is included is truthful.

Director Dorothy Winfield said the new system, in place for about three weeks, “has been working pretty good.”

But she warned that when the weather is warmer, the office gets busier, so that could be a test for the new procedures.

As for the alleged victims, Winfield said some like the idea of going before a judge to explain why they need the help of the courts, while others become “nervous and scared.”

A panel of the Superior Court imposed the new process during a review of a Lancaster County case, Donna L. Ferko-Fox vs. Jonathan P. Fox.

The woman contended her husband physically abused her for a period of time.

In March 2011, a temporary PFA order was put in place, evicting him from his home and prohibiting contact with the wife. Eventually the order was made permanent, after a hearing before a judge.

The husband challenged the county court’s granting of a temporary PFA without a hearing before a judge.

The Superior Court agreed that a judicial review of a sworn statement, without a hearing before a judge, “is inappropriate.”

The judges concluded that having an alleged victim appear before a judge “would necessarily give one pause about leveling exaggerated or specious allegations against another person.” It allows the judge to ask questions, and it gives the judge the opportunity to view any wounds, scratches or bruises suffered by the victims and also to view the state of mind of the victim.

In 2012, Blair County had more than 600 requests for PFAs.