As unlikely as it might seem, some good may actually come out of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
An 11-member Task Force on Child Protection, formed in the aftermath of the criminal charges against the former Penn State assistant football coach, has recommended sweeping changes to state laws, improvements that could go a long way toward making Pennsylvania children safer and to finding and prosecuting perpetrators who abuse them.
Some of the suggestions can and should be implemented immediately: replacing the state's ChildLine reporting number of 1-800-932-0313 with a three-digit, easy-to-remember number such as 611 and encouraging counties to expand the use of multidisciplinary teams to investigate suspected abuse.
Most recommendations require changes in state law. Those that go directly to the goal of making sure that allegations of abuse are properly reported include lowering the threshold for what constitutes child abuse to include reckless and intentional acts in addition those that cause severe pain; expanding the definition of what constitutes sexual abuse to include explicit conversation and exposure of sexual organs; adding college administrators, coaches, librarians and others who work to with children to the list of professionals required to report suspected abuse; and requiring educators to report suspicions directly to ChildLine, not simply to building administrators as currently mandated.
Also on the task force's list are suggestions intended to assure no case falls through bureaucratic cracks, specifically by allowing for more information-sharing among professionals involved in child protection, maintaining reports of suspected abuse indefinitely so law enforcement and child welfare agencies can access them and tracking allegations at the state level rather than county by county.
Although individual measures have been proposed in the past to strengthen child protection, the commission's comprehensive approach is a better way to proceed.
Lawmakers must be careful not to write laws without providing resources necessary to accomplish their ends. Otherwise, the child welfare system could be overwhelmed and, as a consequence, serious allegations might be neglected in a flood of additional cases.
Pennsylvania may not be able to create a system for reporting and investigating claims of abuse that will save all children from abusers like Sandusky, but it can do a far better job if it follows the road map written by the task force.