Casey, Toomey introduce bills to aid abused children

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WASHINGTON -- In separate bills, Pennsylvania's two senators on Thursday introduced measures to help abused children.

Democrat Bob Casey's bill would strengthen requirements for reporting abuse, while Republican Pat Toomey's legislation would make it easier for victims to collect restitution awards in criminal cases.

Mr. Casey's bill is partly a reaction to the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case at Penn State University, while Mr. Toomey's was filed in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that blocked a $3.4 million award to a child pornography victim from central Pennsylvania.

"Sens. Casey and Toomey are really working across the continuum on child abuse issues -- to prevent it, to work to report it and to hold perpetrators accountable," said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children's Justice in Harrisburg.

"Protecting kids is like a puzzle. You've got to put all the pieces together. Casey has got some of the pieces and Toomey has got some of the pieces."

Dubbed the "Speak Up Act," Mr. Casey's bill would allow the federal government to withhold funding from the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) if states don't pass stringent laws requiring certain adults to report instances of known or suspected child abuse directly to authorities, rather than to work supervisors.

Covered individuals include medical providers, school employees, law enforcement officers, clergy, employees of child care facilities, foster parents, court appointed special advocates, social service workers who have contact with children, camp counselors and workers in after-school programs.

Pennsylvania already requires reporting by adults in most of those categories, but some tweaking of state law might be required to be fully compliant, if the federal bill passes.

An earlier version that Mr. Casey introduced immediately after the Sandusky scandal broke would have legally required all adults to report suspected abuse.

That went too far, even for child protection advocates.

"Sen. Casey's immediate reaction was that every single adult had to report," Ms. Palm said. "We were a little cautious about that because we already had a pool of people who had a legal obligation to report and they were confused; they weren't sure what they were supposed to do.

"We said, before we widen the net and say everyone do it, [let's] focus on people with direct contact with kids and try to get that right."

Pennsylvania receives about $2.2 million in CAPTA funding, most of which is used to train medical professionals and educators to recognize and report signs of abuse.

"I wonder if someone at Penn State had [reported the abuse] whether there would have been fewer cases," Mr. Casey said Thursday.

The legislation also helps close a loophole said to impede the relay of information to outside authorities. In the Penn State case, the abuse was reported up the chain of command at the university, rather than to police.

Another provision is aimed at requiring reporting regardless of where abuse occurs.

"Existing law can leave children in danger because their abuser is from another state or because the child was visiting another state when he or she was abused," Mr. Casey said. "This makes it clear that the state where the incident occurred has an obligation to investigate the incident, and other states must help out if necessary."

Meanwhile, Mr. Toomey is working to ensure just compensation for victims of child pornography like the central Pennsylvania woman known in court papers only as Amy.

Amy, now in her 20s, was abused by her uncle when she was 8 and 9 years old. Her uncle recorded the abuse and posted it online, where it has been downloaded thousands of times, causing damages her lawyers say amount to $3.4 million in lost wages and psychotherapy.

She tried to collect the damages from Texan Doyle Paroline, one of hundreds convicted of possessing her image. But the Supreme Court said federal restitution laws are unclear, and that $3.4 million was disproportionate to the amount of damage Paroline himself caused.

Thursday, Mr. Toomey introduced the "Justice for Amy Act," which says that all defendants who abuse a child, produce child pornography or traffic in child pornography to be held jointly and severally liable. That means that any one defendant can be held liable for the full damages, and can then sue other defendants for indemnification.

Amy's attorney, Paul G. Cassell, argued in court that victims like his client, under the current status quo, would be forced into endless litigation across the country to be made whole, tracking down defendant after defendant.

That concerns Mr. Toomey.

The court ruling "perversely damages those most in need of help. Under the court's decision, the more a child has been sexually abused, the harder it is for that child to obtain justice," Mr. Toomey said in a written statement Thursday.

"We should help victims of child sexual abuse, not place obstacles in their way."

The Center for Children's Justice said Mr. Toomey's efforts are helping bring attention to crime too often seen as victimless.

"Every single time an image is viewed or shared there is a victim. Don't kid yourself that there is not a victim," Ms. Palm said. "Child pornography has very real and traumatic consequences. Just because it happens behind a screen we've fooled ourselves into thinking there isn't a victim."


Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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