Pennsylvania takes its time creating tougher child abuse laws

Knee-jerk action could hinder child welfare agencies

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Ten states have rushed to toughen their reporting laws on child sex abuse in the eight months since Jerry Sandusky's arrest set off a nationwide scandal.

One is conspicuously absent from that list: Pennsylvania.

And many of the state's victim advocacy groups have worked to keep it that way -- at least for now.

Amid pressure to pass headline-grabbing legislation in response to the case against the former Penn State University assistant football coach and the equally landmark trial of two priests from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, child-welfare advocates have urged lawmakers to show restraint.

Many worry that in the heat of scandal, the state runs the risk of over-correcting -- of passing knee-jerk bills with requirements that would overwhelm cash-strapped social services agencies or, worse, cast undue suspicion on families and individuals tenuously accused of abuse.

"It's been a balancing act," said Cathleen Palm, executive director of Protect Our Children, a statewide coalition of child-welfare organizations. "We all want to act fast, but we also want to act right."

Despite a host of bills floated since Mr. Sandusky's arrest last year, only three have reached Gov. Tom Corbett's desk, and none directly addresses abuse reporting requirements.

One, signed last week, allows expert testimony in sex-abuse trials. Another, as yet unsigned, would require training every five years for professionals such as teachers and doctors, who are legally bound to report suspected abuse.

But the third -- which in January established a panel to assess the need for new rules -- may be the most important, said Ms. Palm and other victim advocates.

Comprising legislators, lawyers, judges and victim advocates, the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection has met seven times and heard testimony from dozens of witnesses on the advantages and pitfalls of proposed measures. Those include extending civil and criminal statutes of limitations; appointing an ombudsman to handle abuse appeals; and requiring all adults, under threat of criminal penalties, to report suspected abuse.

The group is expected to issue by November a slate of recommendations to overhaul the state's systems for reporting and investigating child abuse.

For advocates such as Frank Cervone, the task force represents the most sustained and thorough look the state has yet taken at an issue that has rarely received the attention it deserves from Harrisburg.

Mr. Cervone, who runs the Philadelphia-based Support Center for Child Advocates, says he fears that rushing to pass bills before the panel is finished could undercut the chance for comprehensive reform.

"To their credit, many legislators want to act now," he said. "But we need to ... make judgments based on good data and sound legal framework."

Victims groups learned that lesson the hard way in 2005. A Philadelphia grand jury issued a scathing report that year accusing archdiocesan officials of covering up for pedophile priests. But because of the statutes of limitations in place then, none of those cases could be prosecuted.

Outraged, state legislators pushed through measures extending the civil and criminal deadlines for reporting rape and broadening child-endangerment laws to include those who supervised suspected molesters.

Those changes made possible this year's case against Monsignor William J. Lynn, who was convicted June 22 of endangering children in approving transfers of pedophile priests to other parishes.

But the swift response to the grand jury's findings left many cracks in Pennsylvania's reporting system.

It remains too confusing for many, Mr. Cervone said. And abuse reports still are not processed through a single authority.

Also, the state continues to treat the accused and their alleged victims differently based on whether the abuse happened within a family or involved an outside figure.

But once the 2005 grand jury report stopped generating headlines, "we could hardly get the Legislature's attention" to fix the problems, Mr. Cervone said.

Mr. Sandusky's case stoked discussion among lawmakers across the country. And other states moved quickly.

In 2012 legislative sessions, about 105 bills on abuse reporting have been introduced in 30 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oregon, South Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia are among those that expanded the list of professionals who are legally bound to report suspected abuse. In Iowa and Indiana, schools now must develop written reporting procedures for staff.

In Florida earlier this year, lawmakers passed the toughest mandatory-reporting law in the nation. It requires all adults to report suspected abuse, with failure to do so a felony.

Such universal mandatory reporting has become one of the most frequently floated proposals in legislatures across the country since the Sandusky case, spurred in part by former assistant football coach Mike McQueary's story of walking in on Mr. Sandusky sodomizing a boy in a locker-room shower in 2001. Mr. McQueary said he reported what he saw to higher-ups within the school, but not to outside law enforcement officials.

Pennsylvania task force chairman David Heckler, however, points to the Florida law as an example of knee-jerk legislation, passed without a full understanding of potential consequences.

"An eyewitness account of child abuse like Mr. McQueary's is truly a one-in-a-million situation," said Mr. Heckler, the Bucks County district attorney. "If you lower the reporting standard too far, you're going to have waves of reports of hangnails and devote all of the resources of [social services workers] to investigating."

So far, he said, Pennsylvania legislative leaders have given his panel time to do its work, refusing to bring certain abuse bills up for votes.

But the pressure to move persists.

Frustrated by the reluctance of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, to advance bills to lengthen the civil and criminal statutes of limitations on child sex abuse, two Philadelphia Democrats attempted last month to circumvent him.

State Reps. Mike McGeehan and Louise Williams Bishop filed a discharge motion to move the proposals to the House floor for a vote.

In response, Mr. Marsico drafted a consolidated bill, which received the unanimous support of his committee, but he said at the time that he had hoped to wait to hear from Mr. Heckler's task force first.

"A number of legislators have been insisting our committee act now," he said.

Even while she supports the task force's contemplative debate, Ms. Palm, the Protect Our Children Committee director, cannot shake the concern that waiting too long could squander the legislative momentum that has been so hard to come by since 2005.

"Every day I wonder, 'What if this is it?' " she said. "But I have to believe the door is not closing. We have to believe that the political will will still be there."

state

First Published July 3, 2012 4:00 AM


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