Pa. Legislature readies big changes to child abuse law

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HARRISBURG -- A single word would make a difference in whether some injured children in Pennsylvania are classified as abused. Because state law says that a child must suffer "serious" bodily injuries to be considered abused, cases have slipped through the cracks.

The state Legislature is poised to change that, drawing on a report submitted by a task force convened 18 months ago in the wake of child abuse scandals.

Major changes to Pennsylvania's child abuse laws were voted unanimously out of a House committee earlier this month and could be passed by the House before it wraps up for the summer at the end of June.

Child advocates are hopeful any differences with the Senate can be ironed out during the fall legislative session, and the bills -- to broaden the definition of what constitutes child abuse, who is considered a perpetrator of such abuse and how it is to be reported -- can become law by the end of the year.

"[The committee vote] moves Pennsylvania much closer to laws and practices that will be child-centered," said Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Protect Our Children Committee, in a statement after a committee vote. "There is still some work to do, but this is a solid step forward."

The proposed laws mostly originated with a statewide panel of experts in December 2011, in the wake of child abuse within the Philadelphia Catholic Archdiocese and the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State.

While progress has been slow in terms of changing the law, most advocates say they are pleased that legislators are taking the proposals seriously and approaching the issue with thoughtfulness.

"Keep in mind, we have a 400-page report, and many, many, many levels of suggested change," said Jason Kutulakis, an attorney and task force member.

"We're making really significant changes to laws that have existed for a very long time," said Dr. Rachel Berger, a physician at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh with expertise in child abuse who also served on the task force. "It takes a lot of thought. It takes a lot of discussion. We all would like it to go faster ... but I think these things take time."

So, what's actually going to change?

Most critical is the legal definition what actually constitutes child abuse.

Under current law, the level of injury and the degree of pain a child has to experience in order for the incident to be considered abuse is high, explained Ms. Palm.

The proposed changes would lower the threshold for abuse from "serious bodily injury" to "bodily injury."

"The good news is, this [changing the definition] is an area I believe, of consensus," said Joan Benso, president and CEO of PA Partnerships for Children.

"The goal is to put Pennsylvania more on par with every other state," said Dr. Berger.

The state is widely considered to be an outlier nationally in terms of its high bar for what it legally considers child abuse, advocates say.

Earlier this month, a Senate panel heard testimony on this same issue. A Senate bill still in committee would similarly lower the standard for abuse from "serious bodily injury" to "bodily injury."

Smaller bills have already been passed by the House, such as legislation to expand protections to any person who makes a good faith report of suspected child abuse; a bill that requires child abuse recognition and reporting training for professional licensees who are mandated reporters of suspected child abuse; and a bill requiring operators and employees of child care centers to receive child abuse recognition and reporting training.

Also passed by the House: bills requiring the Department of Public Welfare to establish procedures for electronic filing of reports of suspected abuse (expected to speed up response times to reports); a bill requiring a child abuse investigation include interviews with all subjects of the report, including the alleged perpetrator; and a bill intended to ensure all school employees are held to the same standard for the purpose of reporting suspected abuse.

Ms. Palm said while there is some concern among legislators about the bills not allowing corporal punishment by parents, she believes those concerns are unfounded.

"A parent will still have the prerogative to use reasonable corporal punishment," she said. "No one is going to be brought before anyone if you spanked your child."

She added, "We are talking about kids with broken bones, with burns, with lacerations, that were not falling within the definition of child abuse."

Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Delmont, who spoke against some of the legislation on the House floor on Thursday, said he does not want to be branded a supporter of child abuse but was concerned about parents' rights.

"Anymore, you can't discipline your child in public ... I just think we're making that problem worse and I just think we need to consider that."

A spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett said his office has been working with both the House and the Senate on their legislation.

"We've had a productive dialogue with both the House and Senate ... and we're hopeful that we'll be able to get legislation on the governor's desk shortly," said Christine Cronkright.

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Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.


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