Corbett signs spate of child welfare laws

Reforms would create a statewide database to track reports of abuse, neglect

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HARRISBURG -- From creating a statewide database of child abuse reports to boosting children's advocacy centers, Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law additional changes to Pennsylvania's protection laws Monday, part of a sweeping series of reforms recommended by a task force convened in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.

"These bills matter to me. They matter to me as a governor. They matter to me as a former prosecutor. They matter to me ... as a parent and now as a grandparent," Mr. Corbett said prior to signing the bills, surrounded by legislators and child advocates who had pushed for the changes.

One of the bills would create a statewide database to make it easier for child welfare and law enforcement agencies to track cases of child abuse and neglect across county lines. It was sponsored by state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, who said in his years in the Shaler Township Police Department he witnessed the need for more coordination among law enforcement and child welfare agencies.

"[This bill] pulls it all together and agrees that there is a share of information," he said.

The state currently lacks an effective system where all 67 counties collect and report data on child neglect, said Joan Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, an advocacy group that has pushed for many of the changes as long overdue.

"This is one of those bills that wasn't really a partisan issue," Mr. Vulakovich said. "Everybody was in agreement."

A number of bills also recommended by the task force have already been signed into law, most prominent among them legislation lowering the bar for the level of bodily injury of what is considered child abuse; that law was signed by the governor in December and takes effect at the end of 2014.

Additional related legislation is still moving through both chambers.

A Senate committee on Monday unanimously passed a bill that establishes whistleblower protections for child abuse reporting; it could receive a final Senate vote as soon as today.

The full Senate on Monday passed legislation tightening penalties for failing to report suspected child abuse and the House unanimously passed a bill clarifying who is considered a "mandated reporter" -- required by law to report suspected child abuse. The bill says that would include anyone who in the course of his employment or profession comes in contact with a child, or is directly responsible for the care, supervision, guidance or training of a child.

All the bills are part of a comprehensive overhaul and all need to pass in order for the changes to work, advocates say.

"They all interplay with each other and you need them to work together well," said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children's Justice.

According to the most recent state statistics, there were 26,664 reports of suspected child abuse in Pennsylvania in 2012; 3,565 cases, or 13.4 percent, were substantiated. There were 33 substantiated child abuse fatalities in Pennsylvania in 2012 and 48 near fatalities.


Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.

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