Do Mental Injuries Meet the Definition of Abuse under the PFA Act?
July 19, 2018


PFA ActThe Protection From Abuse Act (hereinafter the Act) 23 Pa.C.S.A. Sections 6101-6117, defines “abuse” as an attempt to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault or incest with or without a deadly weapon.”  This basic definition of “abuse” is expanded in subparts (2) and (5) of the PFA Act to include “placing another in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury”. The statute clearly states that “bodily harm” or the fear of “imminent serious bodily harm” are the situations that the PFA Act is designed to protect against. The plain language of Act does not address mental abuse and the question frequently arises as to whether a victim of mental abuse is afforded protection under the Act.  A recent Pennsylvania Superior Court decision sheds some light on the scope of the Act.

It is important to note that the Superior Court opinion to which I refer was a Non-Precedential Memorandum Decision which means that it cannot be cited for precedential value; however,  the case may show a willingness on the part of the Court to look more closely at cases involving emotional abuse and perhaps assigning more weight to that emotional component.

In the case, D.J.S. v. J.D.S., Memorandum Decision. No. 1445 MDA 2017 (Pa. Super. May 22, 2018), Mother sought a PFA order on behalf of her minor daughters. In addition to other allegations, Mother alleged that one of the daughters would try to cut or scratch herself after each contact with Father.  Mother stated that she had to seek the intervention of mental health specialists after Father’s contacts.  The trial court granted the PFA order as to the one daughter holding specifically that father’s conduct caused the child serious mental injuries which in and of themselves were sufficient to establish “abuse” under the Act.  Father appealed the trial court decision arguing that the evidence introduced was not sufficient to show that he had “ abused”  his daughter as the term is defined in the Act.

The Superior Court upheld the lower court opinion stating that the purpose of the Act was to “protect victims of domestic violence from those who perpetrate the abuse” and finding that the evidence presented to the trial court was sufficient to satisfy Mother’s burden of proof. In so holding, the Superior Court noted, among other things,  that the child had self-mutilated, starved herself, contemplated suicide and was increasingly anxious and depressed.  The Court concluded that the serious mental injury perpetrated by Father caused physical injury to the child.  On this basis, the Superior Court upheld the trial court’s decision finding that the trial court did not err in entering the PFA order against Father.

As noted above, this is a memorandum opinion and does not set precedence.  Further, it is important to keep in mind that originally Mother sought the PFA order on behalf of two children and the order was entered only as to one child – the child for whom the evidence established serious mental injury resulting from Father’s behavior.  Father’s behavior, it was found, “led to” or caused (albeit indirectly) physical injury to the child.  The question, therefore, remains – what would have been the result if only the severe emotional abuse had been proven without the additional proof that the emotional abuse led to physical injury to the child, even though self-inflicted – would the PFA order have been entered at the trial court level or upheld by the Superior Court.

It appears from the opinion that the courts may still be looking for a nexus between the emotional abuse and some resulting physical component. The opinion may, however, also demonstrate a willingness to look more closely at the impact of emotional abuse on a victim and the long-term harm caused by the emotional abuse when determining whether a PFA order is warranted.

Sandy believes that the law is a great profession for women, offering intellectual challenges, as well as the opportunity to work with great people. She loves helping people through the most troubling periods of their lives and bringing their issues to a solid resolution. Sandy also enjoys the many facets of family law that make it infinitely interesting. She sees these aspects as puzzle pieces that she must fit together – from taxes and small businesses to trusts and estate work, future planning and much more – Read Full Bio