Pennsylvanians are increasingly turning to a two-year-old Pennsylvania law that expanded protective orders for victims of sexual violence and intimidation, and state lawmakers are debating whether to make additional improvements to the system.
The Sexual Violence and Intimidation Act that went into effect in July 2015 created two new types of orders beyond "protection from abuse" orders , widely referred to as PFAs, that have long been available to restrict contact from an intimate partner or a family member.
The new legal mechanisms are protection-from-intimidation orders, designed to help children who are being harassed or stalked by non-family members who are adults, and sexual violence protection orders, for victims of sexual violence whose attackers are not family members or dating partners but strangers, friends, acquaintances and the like.
Pennsylvania State Police say courts have issued 315 temporary and final protection-from-intimidation orders so far this year, up from 310 last year and 187 during part of 2015. The number of sexual violence protection orders is already 552 this year, compared to 470 last year and 260 during the second half of 2015.
Donna Fry helped her underage daughter obtain a protection from intimidation order in the Philadelphia suburbs against the man who had sexually assaulted her, giving mother and daughter some peace of mind.
"I do see some value in it, because if he screws up, he'll go back to jail," Fry said. "In that sense, I see value. At the same time, he was driving up and down my street at one time, we had to call police about it."
The new protective orders are still far eclipsed by the number of PFAs, said York County Prothonotary Pam Lee.
Her office has handled 40 of the new orders over the past two-and-a-half years, compared to nearly 2,000 conventional PFAs during that same period.
Lee said parents helped their child obtain a protection-from-intimidation order against a coach. Most of the PFIs through Lee's office have been for harassment of some sort.
The sexual violence orders "get a little bit more horrible," Lee said. "We've had a neighbor who asked to use a phone and sexually assaulted a minor. We have one where one parent filed against another on behalf of the children who were witnessing sexual acts in the home of the person they were filing against."
PFAs are much better known, but the new orders are filling a real need, said Mary Onama, executive director of the Montgomery County Victim Services Center.
"The victims that have used it in our agency have found it to be a very important remedy for them," Onama said. "They have said, at least somebody listened and recognized that we need it."
Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, who sponsored the legislation to expand protective orders, said that for many years addressing abuse was not a major priority.
"Society is changing," Greenleaf said, noting the public outrage over reports of sexual abuse of women. "That's what we have to do, is we have to try to educate people about these things."
Other changes to state law regarding protective orders are pending in the Legislature, including bills that would make available police or deputies for protection for the time when a protective order is being served on someone, end the practice of turning over firearms under a court order to a third party instead of to police or a gun dealer, make it easier to extend an order if someone is getting out of jail and let judges use risk assessment tools when setting bail for defendants in domestic violence cases.