02 April 2012

Domestic abuse can be prevented though PFA orders

By Emily Shaffer, Juris Blogger
Rebecca Stahl was a Westmoreland County middle school teacher who was found dead in a wooded area near Latrobe airport. Her husband, David Stahl, was charged with criminal homicide after evidence at the Stahl residence led police to the woods where they found Rebecca’s body. The first time I heard Rebecca Stahl’s name and saw her picture on the news, I got the feeling that I knew her from somewhere. Her face kept appearing on television, but I didn’t realize how I knew her until I saw posts on Facebook and received an email telling her story. I realized that I had seen her face before in pictures from my old job at a bridal shop in Greensburg. In fact, I found that she was a close friend of some of my friends and former coworkers. Because this story hit close to home, I wanted to honor Rebecca Stahl’s memory by writing this blog about the seriousness of domestic violence and the importance of obtaining and keeping a Protection from Abuse order (PFA).

Sean Stipp/Tribune-Review
An officer responds to news of Stahl's body being found.
The teacher was 37 years old.
According to the TribLive, Rebecca Stahl had a PFA against David Stahl before they were married. The PFA expired after one year, and after its expiration, the two were married in 2008. In 2011, David Stahl was cited for harassment of his wife, but she consented to dismiss the citation. After her murder this February, it was not surprising to find out that David Stahl had a history of physically abusing his wife, and unfortunately these are the sad stories that make it important to reinforce the need for victims of abusive relationships to obtain PFAs and to educate them on the help available.

A Protection from Abuse order is a document signed by a judge that offers civil legal protection from domestic violence to the person asserting the order. According to Pennsylvania Statute 23 Pa.C.S.A. §6106(a), a PFA can be sought by an adult or emancipated minor for “that person or any parent, adult household member or guardian ad litem…by filing a petition with the court alleging abuse by the defendant.” The plaintiff will not be charged filing fees for a PFA, as fees and costs will generally be asserted against the defendant. Within ten business days after the plaintiff files, there will be a hearing before the court where the plaintiff has the burden of proving “the allegation of abuse by a preponderance of the evidence.” 23 Pa.C.S.A. §6107(a). The burden of proof threshold is so low in PFA cases because of the seriousness of domestic abuse.

If there is an immediate threat of abuse or if the plaintiff petitions for a temporary order for protection from abuse, the court will conduct an ex parte proceeding where they may enter a temporary order that will be in effect until terminated by the court after notice and hearing. 23 Pa.C.S.A. §6107. Relief that can be found through a PFA is enumerated in 23 Pa.C.S.A. §6108(a)(1)-(10). Among relief listed in this section is: directing the defendant to refrain from abusing the plaintiff or minor children; evicting the defendant from the residence and granting possession to the plaintiff; ordering the defendant to provide suitable alternate housing if defendant has a duty to support the plaintiff or minor children; determining whether to award temporary custody or visitation rights; directing the defendant to pay support to those he may have a duty to support; ordering defendant to temporarily relinquish weapons and ammunition to the sheriff; ordering the defendant to pay reasonable losses suffered as a result of the abuse; directing the defendant to refrain from stalking or harassing the plaintiff; and granting any other appropriate relief.

Though a Protection from Abuse order is not the end-all be-all to domestic violence, it is a start for the victim to begin getting back on his or her feet. Though a PFA may be a legal remedy, the victim may still suffer from emotional trauma as a result of the abuse. There are many hotlines and organizations available locally that are designed to counsel and assist victims of domestic abuse. If a child is being abused, ChildLine (1-800-932-0313) is a hotline available in Pittsburgh that a victim (or the victim’s guardian) may call in order to report abuse at any time of the day or night. Womansplace Pittsburgh (1-866-202-5573) is a confidential hotline for emergency help and counseling for female victims of domestic abuse. The Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh also has a 24-hour hotline (412-687-8005) available with advocates to assist victims of abuse. The Women’s Center provides support groups for domestic violence victims and free legal advocacy for victims seeking justice from their abusers. These and many other options are available to support victims of domestic violence, and it’s time to spread the knowledge that calling one of these numbers could save lives. If you know a victim of domestic violence, don’t let them suffer. Spread Rebecca Stahl’s story and save a life.

Emily Shaffer is a second year student at Duquesne University School of Law. She is a student ambassador for the law school and an intern for Judge Eaton in the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas, Family Division. Emily earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Communications and a minor in Spanish. She will graduate from Duquesne University School of Law in 2013, and can be reached at shaffere@duq.edu.