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Homicide sparks questions about holes in PFA law

WILKES-BARRE, LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — The murder of a centralPennsylvania woman Friday night has once again raised questions about the effectiveness of Protection from Abuse Orders commonly known as PFAs. 

Investigators say 46-year-old Heather Campbell from Trevorton had recently filed a PFA against the alleged shooter, Christopher Fernanders from Paxinos. Campbell and 52-year-old Matthew Bowersox were shot and killed outside a restaurant.

While it’s a common thought that PFAs are just a piece of paper, court officials say that in most cases, it does help victims of domestic violence.

“It is a piece of paper but if that person was to appear once you get a PFA you can call the police immediately and they would be arrested,” Judge Mike Vough, President Judge at Luzerne County Court

Vough insists that PFAs are a valuable tool for those involved in domestic violence situations. About 1,500 PFAs are filed in Luzerne County every year.

“In our system it’s the only place to go to get protection from your prior sexual partner or family member that is causing problems in your life or is harassing or threatening you in anyway,” Vough said.

The Snyder County District Attorney confirmed over the weekend that Campbell filed a PFA against Fernanders on July 1st. Investigators say he shot and killed her and Bowersox Friday night outside the Buffalo Wild Wings Restaurant in Monroe Township.

“I wish there was a way we could stop prior from harming other people but a PFA is a court order that allows someone to seek protection and immediate police intervention. If something were to happen if tragically takes a life of another person, it is still only a piece of paper,” Vough said.

State officials report that some 40,000 PFA’s are filed in Pennsylvania each year. Between 2015 and 2016, there were at least 12 cases where PFA violations did have or could have had deadly consequences.

That same report concluded: “While the majority of PFA’s function as they should and do not result in violence, sometimes when they fail people die.”

Victims rights advocates admit that a PFA, while it is legal recourse for people in volatile domestic relations can escalate the situation.

“You have to remember too, that when a victim gets a PFA it puts her more at risk because the abuser starts to lose control,” Paula Triano, Executive Dir. Luzerne County Domestic Violence Service Center said. “She’s more at risk of being hurt or a homicide.”

Victims rights advocates say that’s why many people in domestic violence situations hesitate to file for a PFA or may even withdraw the PFA hoping it will de-escalate the situation.

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According to the Attorney General’s Office, most plaintiffs either do not appear or choose to withdraw the PFA after filing. In 2018, these scenarios accounted for over 45 percent of cases.