Overhaul of Pa. child abuse laws planned

Senate could vote on

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HARRISBURG -- A bill at the center of a package of child abuse law reforms passed unanimously through a Senate committee Tuesday.

The legislation, which has passed the House, could get a full Senate vote as early as next week.

The proposal is the legal centerpiece of a huge overhaul of the state's child abuse laws; it is one of a number of changes put forth by a task force convened in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

The main provision of the bill is a new definition of what legally constitutes child abuse: "intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury to a child." It also lists a number of acts that would constitute abuse, such as kicking, burning, forcefully shaking or striking a child less than 1 year old.

"The level of injury that a child has to suffer isn't as serious or extreme," under the revised definition, said Cathleen Palm, executive director of advocacy group the Protect Our Children Committee.

Current state law says that a child must suffer "serious" bodily injury to be considered abused.

Additionally, feigning or exaggerating a medical symptom or disease that results in a harmful medical treatment would also constitute abuse. Causing a child to be present at a methamphetamine lab, or leaving a child with an individual (other than the child's parent) who has been convicted of certain sex offenses would also be considered child abuse, according to a summary of the bill from the office of Sen. Bob Mensch, R-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate aging and youth committee.

The bill still contains an exemption for not providing medical care if it is part of the practice of religious beliefs, allows the use of force for safety purposes and would not "restrict the existing rights of parents to use reasonable force on or against their children for the purposes of supervision, control and discipline of their child," according to the summary.

The bill passed the House 191-6 at the end of June.

There were 26,664 reports of suspected abuse and/or neglect last year, of which 3,565 cases, or 13.4 percent, were substantiated, according to statistics released earlier this year by the state Department of Public Welfare. There were 33 substantiated child fatalities in Pennsylvania in 2012 and 48 near-fatalities.

If the bill becomes law, it will not take effect until the end of next year.


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

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