Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors are in high demand in our world, and those who embark on these careers must invest a lot of time and money into getting an education, being licensed as a counselor, and/or becoming a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CAADC). As a licensed counselor, you also have a duty to uphold public trust--which is why being hit with a Protection from Abuse Order (PFA) in Pennsylvania can potentially throw your career into jeopardy. Not only could a PFA ban you from contact with your significant other, force you from your home, and impact your custody rights; it can also trigger an investigation by the Pennsylvania State Board of Social Workers, Marriage and Family Therapists, and Professional Counselors, potentially putting your license at risk. What can you do to protect your career if you're accused of domestic violence and served with a PFA? Here's what you need to know.
Overview of PFAs in Pennsylvania
A Protection from Abuse Order (PFA) is a civil order of protection granted by a court to protect victims of domestic violence—whether they be spouses, ex-spouses, live-in relatives, domestic partners, etc. The person requesting the PFA is the petitioner, while the person accused of domestic violence is the respondent or defendant. If a PFA is issued, the defendant is banned from contacting or approaching within a certain distance of the petitioner. If you're served with a PFA and violate its terms in any way, you could be convicted of criminal contempt, resulting in jail time of up to 6 months and a criminal record.
When a petitioner requests protection, the judge usually begins by issuing a temporary PFA to be effective immediately for up to ten days, at which time a hearing will be held to determine whether to make the PFA final. You don't have to be charged with a crime to have a PFA against you; the judge only needs to be convinced that you pose a threat to the petitioner.
At the final PFA hearing, you can appear with your attorney, question witnesses, and present arguments to contest the PFA. If the judge agrees that the PFA is unnecessary, he/she may dismiss the temporary PFA or allow it to expire. If the judge believes the petitioner, he/she will issue a final PFA, which is effective for up to 3 years.
Does a PFA Show Up on Criminal Background Checks?
No. A PFA is a civil order, not a criminal conviction, and therefore it doesn't appear in standard background checks. However, if you're convicted of violating the PFA, that criminal record will appear in criminal background checks. Also, any PFA becomes a matter of public court record, and the court will make these records available to people who provide a valid reason to request them.
Can a PFA Endanger My Professional License as a Substance Abuse/Behavioral Disorder Counselor?
Yes, it could. Even if no criminal charges are ever filed, the very existence of a PFA sends a message that the court considers you a threat to another person's safety--and that constitutes a violation of public trust. It also suggests behavior on your part that flies in the face of the type of counseling you do, thereby calling into question your competence to serve as a substance abuse or behavioral disorder counselor. Thus, if the state licensing board is alerted to your PFA, it might trigger an investigation that could lead to disciplinary action against your license--including suspension or a full revocation. The board could get word of the PFA in any of the following ways, among others:
- If you violate the PFA and are convicted of a crime, the board will likely be notified of it
- A patient, colleague, or some other individual who knows about the PFA could report you to the board directly by filing a complaint against you
- The board might discover the PFA by accessing court records, perhaps as part of a different investigation
Ways to Protect Your Counselor License if You Have a PFA Against You
You don't have to leave your future to fate if you're served with a PFA. With the help of an experienced Pennsylvania defense attorney, you can take the following steps to safeguard your career:
- Contest the temporary PFA to get it dismissed before it is finalized. A temporary PFA that expires has much less opportunity to do damage to you (and is much easier to explain) than a final PFA. The PFA hearing is your opportunity to make a compelling argument as to why the judge should not issue a final PFA. If the PFA is not finalized, the danger to your license is minimized.
- Seek to remove a temporary PFA from court records. You can't remove a final PFA from court records, but you might be able to get a temporary PFA removed if it was dismissed or withdrawn. This adds an extra layer of protection to keep it from triggering an investigation by the board.
- Appeal a final PFA. If you have evidence that the PFA was issued in error, you may be able to get it vacated by filing a Motion to Reconsider within ten days or filing a formal appeal within 30 days. If successful, either appeal could reduce the risk to your license.
- Address the board's concerns if the matter comes up. Despite your best efforts, a PFA could still raise a red flag with the state licensing board. If it does, a good professional license defense attorney can advocate for you, present arguments as to how the PFA does not affect your ability to practice effectively and negotiate for leniency. In many cases, this is enough to keep your license intact.
If you're a licensed substance abuse or behavioral disorder counselor who has been served with a PFA, take action now to minimize the damage to your career. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has years of proven experience with challenging unfair PFAs, and he has additional professional license defense experience to help you navigate any concerns with the licensing board. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation.