If you are a mental health counselor who has been hit with a Protection from Abuse Order (PFA) in Pennsylvania, you may have concerns about how it could affect your life and career. In reality, a PFA can have far-reaching consequences in many areas of life. Not only could you be forced from your home and barred from making contact with your significant other, but your custody rights could be affected. And as if that weren't enough, the existence of a PFA against you could trigger an investigation into your license with the Pennsylvania State Board of Social Workers, Marriage and Family Therapists, and Professional Counselors. Worst-case scenario, it could cost you your license to practice as a counselor.
The good news is that if you are proactive in your response to a PFA, you can greatly reduce the risk to your professional license. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has extensive experience helping defendants deal with all aspects of combating a PFA, including helping to protect their careers. If you're a licensed mental health professional who has been served with a PFA, the following information will help you make informed choices on what to do next.
Protection From Abuse Orders in Pennsylvania
A Protection from Abuse Order (PFA) is a civil court order that gives legal protection to persons who are the victims of domestic violence. If you are served with a PFA, you are generally forbidden to have contact with the person who petitioned the court for protection (i.e., the petitioner), although there will likely be other specific restrictions. The petitioner doesn't have to prove conclusively that you harmed or threatened them--and in fact, you don't even have to be charged with a crime. The petitioner must simply convince a judge that you pose a credible threat to their safety.
How the PFA Process Works
When dealing with PFA cases, judges typically begin by issuing a temporary PFA. This measure goes into effect immediately and lasts until a hearing can be scheduled, typically within ten days or less. During this period, you must comply with whatever restrictions are detailed on the PFA. If you violate the terms even inadvertently, you may be charged with criminal contempt and, if convicted, sentenced to up to six months in jail.
The PFA hearing is your opportunity to share your side of the story and contest the PFA. You may appear with an attorney to make your case, and the other side will present their evidence, also. Following the hearing, the judge will rule on whether to let the temporary PFA expire or issue a final PFA. A final PFA will be in place for up to three years.
Does a PFA Show Up on Public Records?
Yes—although not readily accessible. Since a PFA is a civil order rather than a criminal sentence, it will not show up on criminal background checks. However, if you are convicted of violating the PFA, that conviction will show up as a criminal record. PFAs are also documented in court records, and these may be accessed upon request. If someone specifically wants to know whether you have a PFA against you, they can usually find it in the court records.
Why Is the Licensing Board Concerned About a PFA, and Why Could It Cost Me My License?
From an occupational standpoint, the job of mental health counselor is one that relies heavily on the public trust. The Pennsylvania State Board of Social Workers, Marriage and Family Therapists, and Professional Counselors holds licensees to high ethical and professional standards, and crimes of moral turpitude (such as assault or domestic violence) are considered a breach of trust. Although you may not be charged with such a crime, the existence of a PFA indicates that a member of the public considers you a threat--and a judge agrees. This fact could trigger an investigation resulting in disciplinary action against your license—up to and including having your counselor's license revoked.
Although the PFA won't show up on most public records, the licensing board can still learn about it in a number of ways. For example:
- The board may discover the PFA through court records, perhaps as part of a separate inquiry
- If you are found in contempt of the PFA and convicted of criminal contempt, the board may be informed
- Someone who knows about the PFA (e.g., a patient, colleague, or someone else) could file a formal complaint with the board
What to Do to Protect Your Professional License in the Event of a PFA
The best approach to handle both the immediate and long-term consequences of a PFA, as well as any professional ramifications, is with a proactive strategy. Hiring a good attorney is the first step in this process. Your attorney may implement the following strategies to protect your license:
- Challenge the temporary PFA at the hearing. The PFA hearing gives you the best opportunity to have the PFA overturned. Don't waste the opportunity by coming unprepared. Your risk of disciplinary action against your license is ultimately reduced if you can present compelling evidence to the judge as to why a final PFA should not be issued.
- Have the temporary PFA removed from court records. If your PFA is finalized, it cannot be removed from court records. However, Pennsylvania law currently allows you to petition for removal of all mentions of a temporary PFA if it was dismissed or withdrawn before being finalized.
- Appeal the final PFA. You can file a Motion to Reconsider once a PFA is finalized, as well as a formal appeal. The PFA may be overturned if you can show it was issued due to an error in law or an error in fact.
- Deal with the licensing board directly. If the board learns of the PFA and starts to investigate, address the board openly and honestly. A skilled license defense attorney can improve your chances of prevailing upon the board that the PFA is not an indicator of your competency as a mental health counselor and that you can still maintain the public trust. In many cases, this is enough to keep one's license intact.
Don't risk your career as a mental health counselor by taking a passive approach to a PFA. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has experience in both domestic violence cases and professional license defense, and he will work with you to minimize the damage. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to see how we can help.