Last updated: February 15. 2013 9:39PM - 145 Views

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By Terrie Morgan-Besecker tmorgan@timesleader.comLaw & Order Reporter
WILKES-BARRE – After several years of decline, the number of people seeking protection from abuse orders has increased significantly in the past two years, reaching a near all-time high this year with more 1,000 new petitions being filed.

As of last week, 1,090 new cases had been filed this year, compared to 847 in 2009 -- a 28 percent increase. The statistics are more troubling when compared to 2008, when just 631 new cases were filed, according to figures reported to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
The number of filings is the third highest the county has had in the past decade. It follows several years of steady decline in new cases, which hit a high of 1,307 in 1999, the first year that AOPC began collecting data on PFAs.
Judge Tina Polachek Gartley, who oversees family court, said she believes the increase this year is partly due to additional stress that’s been placed on families by the poor economy.
“Domestic violence is linked to pressure at home. Many pressures are economic,” Polachek Gartley said. “If dad is not working, there’s no extra money coming into the home and the stress is greater. Anything that adds stressors to the environment creates increased violence in the home.”
Paula Triano, executive director of the Domestic Violence Service Center, said her agency has also seen an increase in the number of victims seeking help.
The center provides emergency shelter for domestic abuse victims as well as a transitional housing program that gives victims a place to stay while searching for a new home. The center served 122 victims this past fiscal year, compared to 91 the year before – a 34 percent increase.
Triano said she also believes economic pressures have played a role in increasing violence at home.
“I don’t think the economy is the cause, just like I don’t think drinking and drugs cause domestic violence. If you already have domestic violence set in, those kinds of things, drinking, drugs, the economy, exacerbate it. It doesn’t cause it, it just adds stress to an already bad situation,” Triano said.
The bulk of PFA orders are obtained by women seeking protection from their husband or boyfriend. Polachek Gartley said there are an increasing number of parents seeking protection from their minor children, as well as elderly persons seeking protection from their grown children.
The high number of PFA filings has put significant stress on the court system, which, down three full-time judges, is struggling to deal with all types of civil and criminal caseloads, she said.
When a petition is filed it must be reviewed that day – ideally within an hour – by a judge, who will determine whether an emergency order should be issued, she said.
“There may be a day when you have 14 or 15 come in. You have to make sure there’s a judge to review them. You can’t send someone away and say come back later,” she said.
The court has been able to do that, thanks to the help of several senior judges, she said. It’s also ensured that a hearing on a permanent order is held within 10 days, as required by law.
The case loads have led to some long days in PFA court for persons seeking the orders, however.
“You come in and then sit and wait. You can be there almost a full day,” she said.

Terrie Morgan-Besecker, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 570-829-7179.
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