- Associated Press - Saturday, February 13, 2016

YORK, Pa. (AP) - They show up at the York County Judicial Center, head to an office near the lunchroom and ask for help.

They say they’re scared of their husband or wife, intimate partner or family member.

They want protection.

They fill out paperwork. They tell their side, answering a form full of questions that essentially ask things like:

When was the most recent incident of abuse?

Did you seek medical attention?

Has the alleged abuser used a gun or other weapon against you?

Then they wait.

Most get to see a judge, whichever one is handling cases that day, at an afternoon hearing. In the courtroom, it’s the judge’s chance to ask them questions.

Some cry, fidget, struggle to talk. Others are more matter-of-fact.

The judge decides whether to grant legal protection while alleged victims wait for a final hearing, which is typically scheduled for about 10 days later.

Each year, from 2010 through 2014, judges in York County denied that protection at one of the highest rates in the state.

Statewide, judges denied the requests about 12 percent of the time in 2014, according to Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts data. In York County, judges denied them about three-and-a-half times as often — about 44 percent of requests.

York County saw an increase in the number of domestic-violence related deaths in 2015, including four murder-suicides that alone left 10 people dead. A YDR analysis of domestic-violence related deaths since 2004 — based on information from the York County coroner’s office, newspaper archives and prothonotary office records — didn’t find any cases of a homicide victim who had been denied a temporary PFA immediately before their death.

Still, domestic violence advocates say York County has a reputation as a tough place to get a judge’s approval, which they say can discourage people from even trying.

Anne Acker said the range of denial rates among local judges was bigger than she would have thought. She said it seems that your odds of getting a temporary PFA depend on which judge hears your case.

“Your life should not have to depend on luck of the draw,” said Acker, director of YWCA Hanover Safe Home.

But President Judge Joseph C. Adams said each temporary PFA case is different, and judges make decisions based on the law — not on percentages.

The percentage of temporary PFAs approved in York County increased in 2015, although the approval rate was still below the state average, according to preliminary numbers from the state.

State law, specifically the Protection from Abuse Act, says common pleas judges can approve temporary orders if they determine a plaintiff or minor children “are in immediate and present danger of abuse” from an intimate partner or family member.

But the law gives a lot of discretion when it comes to deciding what counts as “immediate and present danger,” said Ellen Kramer, an attorney and legal director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Kramer said it’s good for courts to look at individual circumstances. But that discretion can sometimes be a challenge for plaintiffs.

“Sometimes the courts are predisposed to think about a particular victim or a particular set of circumstances, one way or another,” Kramer said. “So it’s really incumbent upon the court to kind of go into each of these cases with an open mind and listen to the facts.”

Decisions ‘wrestle on your mind’

PFA cases might be the most difficult ones Adams handles, he said.

Adams, a former assistant district attorney in York County who prosecuted domestic violence and child abuse cases, responded on behalf of county judges. He said he helped write protocols for how police handle domestic violence cases. He worked on PFA cases in private practice, too, before getting elected to the York County Court of Common Pleas in 2005. He is the former administrative judge for York County’s family division, which handles PFA cases.

When judges decide whether to approve those temporary orders, Adams said, they have to balance the interests of the alleged victims and the alleged abusers.

The most dangerous time for domestic violence victims is when they are leaving or trying to leave an abuser, advocates say. No judge, Adams said, wants to read in the newspaper that somebody denied a PFA has been killed. “That is everybody’s worst nightmare,” Adams said.

But for temporary orders, defendants don’t have a chance to deny the allegations, offer other evidence, question a person’s credibility, or look an accuser and a judge in the eyes.

A temporary order could remove them from their home, take away their guns or limit how often they see their children.

Judges also consider motives of plaintiffs when they try to determine credibility.

“These are the things that wrestle on your mind,” said Adams. “…Did you make the right decision?”

There can be consequences beyond what the judges order. Adams remembers a case from several years ago where a man was evicted from his home because of a temporary PFA, and his work was affected because his tools were inside the home.

Interpreting the law

Adams said that even if judges say a defendant should keep custody rights, the logistics of exchanging children through a third party often get in the way.

Acker, of Hanover Safe Home, and Heather Keller, legal advocacy director of YWCA York’s ACCESS-York and Victim Assistance Center, said judges in York County generally seem to want to see allegations of physical abuse before granting a temporary protection order.

“Just because you’re not getting pushed down the steps, or beaten up, or whatever, doesn’t mean you’re not in danger,” Acker said.

The law says abuse includes, for example, following someone in circumstances that would put them in reasonable fear of bodily injury.

And Acker pointed to the lethality assessment screening tool used by police officers to identify alleged victims of domestic violence who are at the highest risk of being killed or seriously injured. Many of the questions on the screening tool ask about relationship issues other than physical violence.

The women co-chair a domestic violence review team that examines fatalities. Keller said a key thing she looks for is power and control in relationships.

Keller said understanding that dynamic can help you put individual events in a larger context and understand why someone has a reasonable fear of imminent bodily injury.

Acker and Keller declined to discuss individual judges. But they said they’ve been puzzled by some denials — including ones where plaintiffs alleged physical abuse.

Adams declined to discuss specific PFA cases since, he said, doing so could put him at risk of having to recuse himself from cases.

Adams said it was hard to tell whether the range among judges that the YDR analysis found was a good or bad thing, because decisions are specific to each case.

At another point during a lengthy December interview, Adams said it’s human nature for judges to have some differences in how they decide whether someone is in immediate and present danger of abuse.

“It’s just like in baseball, I guess. Some umpires have a wider strike zone. Some might have a little, slightly smaller strike zone,” Adams said. “But we’re all governed by the same rule.”

Higher standard for temporary PFA

Adams said judges can get feedback about whether they’re handling cases the right way through the appeals process. He said even though temporary order decisions aren’t directly appealable to the state’s Superior Court, an appeals court can weigh in on the temporary order process if a final order is appealed.

Cases can be complex. Sometimes people don’t describe physical abuse in the most recent incident, but describe a variety of factors that make them afraid.

It’s not a secret to advocates or to the community that the denial rate for temporary PFAs “is kind of high” here, Keller said.

“So it is not unusual for us to get calls from people that say, ‘But I know I’ll never get a PFA approved,’” she said. “And so when you are in a place where you feel hopeless and helpless anyway, and the one remedy that you might have … the word on the street is it’s not gonna happen, it certainly is not empowering.”

Attorney George R. Studzinski has worked with MidPenn Legal Services for 26 years. In 2014, he represented at least 30 people in PFA cases, according to a YDR analysis. In most of those cases, Studzinski was working for the plaintiff.

Studzinski said a plaintiff who is denied a temporary PFA could feel discouraged. It could also “embolden the defendant,” and give them reason to fight further action in court.

Temporary PFAs and final PFAs have different legal standards. Adams said there’s a higher standard for a temporary PFA, since the defendant isn’t present for those hearings, called ex parte hearings.

For a final PFA, a plaintiff has to prove the abuse — even if it’s past abuse — by a preponderance of the evidence.

Different styles, different decisions

“So even though you were denied the ex parte one, you may very well get the final order,” Adams said.

The way judges in York County conduct hearings for temporary orders varies, both from one judge to another and from hearing to hearing for each individual judge. Sometimes, a judge will ask lots of questions of one plaintiff, and ask few or no questions of another plaintiff. Sometimes, judges deny a request without a hearing.

The YDR analysis raises questions about the consistency of the judges’ rulings on temporary PFA cases.

Some 2014 petitions with similar allegations were granted, while others were denied. Sometimes when physical abuse was alleged, the judge didn’t grant protection. And sometimes when no physical abuse was alleged, the judge granted the temporary PFA.

What’s changing in York County

York County judges in 2015 granted the highest percentage of temporary PFAs since the state started tracking that data.

From 2010 through 2014, the approval rate ranged from about 54 percent to about 59 percent in each of those years.

In mid-January, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts provided preliminary numbers that show about 86 percent of temporary PFA requests were approved statewide in 2015. Meanwhile, York County judges granted more than in previous years: about 73 percent of the requests.

Acker, when told about the change in 2015, said: “Really? I can’t imagine that.”

Acker said she thought the increase in granted orders could have been the result of a cover sheet being added to the front of PFA petitions. Stacy Snyder, deputy court administrator for family court in the York County Court of Common Pleas, said that sheet was added in April 2015. It explains that an advocate is available to help fill out the petition and provide other support. Advocates said they worked with court staff on that addition.

“We will be with you every step of the way,” the sheet says.

Acker said domestic violence victims can be so used to the abuse that key parts of their story get lost in the weeds when they try to put it into words. Advocates can help them prioritize information, which could influence the judge’s decision.

Snyder said there were previously pamphlets with information about victims’ services in the PFA office. The pamphlets are still there, she said, but the cover sheet is more “in your face.”

In a Jan. 27 email, Adams said he talked about the increase in approvals with other judges. He said the only explanation “that we can come up (with) is the greater use of advocates in 2015.”

He said “any help someone can receive in framing the issue is very helpful and likely to lead to the granting of a temporary order.”

Keller had hoped a 2013 Superior Court decision would have meant that everyone who requested a temporary PFA would see a judge. That happened in some counties — Bucks and Lancaster, for example, judges there said. But in York County, judges deny some temporary PFAs after reviewing the petition and without seeing the plaintiff.

In 2014, 43 petitions were denied without a hearing, Snyder said.

During the December interview, Adams said that in York County, people denied a temporary PFA without seeing a judge can still ask to see one. But Keller and Acker, local domestic violence advocates, weren’t aware of that, and they didn’t think plaintiffs were either.

In an email in mid-January, Adams said the court does not have a formal process for telling people they may speak with a judge in such cases. But he said the court is reviewing its procedures.

Some county websites describe a screening process before petitions get to a judge. It’s possible that requiring victims to file through an advocacy agency or giving certain vetting authority to non-judges could reduce how many requests get before a judge. That could skew the data that counties submit monthly as part of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts reports.

Art Heinz, spokesman for AOPC, said screenings vary by county, and his office doesn’t have details on the separate processes for them.

Judge Joseph C. Adams and Stacy Snyder, deputy court administrator for family court, said York County does not have a screening in place.

“Our position is that every single petition, regardless of whether it has merit, has to get seen by a judge,” Adams said. “It has to get in the system.”

Adams said he’s heard from lawyers that there are screenings in some other counties.

But even without a screening in York County, there are fewer petitions for temporary PFA orders reaching judges here than across the rest of the state, when you adjust for the different populations in counties. It’s not clear why.

Over the five years from 2010 through 2014, there were about 16 requests for a temporary PFA for every 1,000 people statewide.

During the same period in York County, there were nine petitions for a temporary PFA order for every 1,000 people.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1mlSlLb

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Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com

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