Stricter child abuse laws go into effect in Pennsylvania
January 2, 2015 12:00 AM
Jerry Sandusky leaves the Centre County Courthouse following the first day of testimony in his trial in 2012.
By Molly Born / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Child care advocates hope a major package of child abuse laws that took effect this week will prevent more children at risk from slipping through the cracks.
The new regulations, a result of the recommendations from the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection that convened in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, expand the state’s definition of child abuse, clarify who is a mandatory reporter and an alleged perpetrator of such abuse, and modernizes record-keeping, among other changes.
Pennsylvania had been considered an outlier among states for having a high threshold for what constitutes child abuse and far fewer reports of such abuse, said Cathleen Palm, founder of The Center for Children’s Justice in Berks County.
“Sandusky was the tipping point, but Pennsylvania’s law/practices really left too many children unprotected from serious physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect for years,” she said.
The law combines 21 pieces of legislation, most of which took effect Wednesday. Among the key changes is what legally is considered abuse — one that Mary Carrasco, director of A Child’s Place at Mercy, considers most significant.
Previously, the law said a child must suffer "serious physical injury," but that standard has been lowered to "bodily injury" which requires "impairment of a physical condition" or substantial pain rather than severe pain or "lasting impairment." Dr. Carrasco recalled an instance in which an emergency room doctor reported a possible child abuse case after treating a child with a cigarette burn. When a Children, Youth and Families employee asked the doctor if the child had suffered “serious” pain, the doctor said no.
Also under the new law, the definition of who commits child abuse has been expanded to include relatives who don’t live with the child and a parent’s spouse or significant other. Previously, it was possible for such a person to be prosecuted for assault in relation to child abuse allegations, for example, but never make it onto the state child abuse registry because social workers couldn’t intervene, Ms. Palm said.
That “disconnect” affected how children receive services and healing, how officials account for someone accused of abuse and the accuracy of the number of victims, she said. Then there’s the possibility that the alleged abuser might not be prosecuted at all.
“You could have someone who harmed a child, but they’re never tracked anywhere.”
Also new is a process to eliminate “chain-of-command reporting” for suspected child abuse. Certain professionals who have contact with a child — such as doctors, teachers, clergy and some attorneys — are required to report suspected abuse to ChildLine, the state’s child abuse reporting hot line rather than a supervisor. Those who “willfully” fail to report suspected child abuse can face tougher penalties.
Reports made to ChildLine, now also available online, will be shared in real time between counties and law enforcement, which Ms. Palm said will help investigators learn of any previous reports involving a child or family.
The law also expands background checks for school volunteers and requires school employees, independent school contractors and volunteers in direct contact with children to update clearances every 36 months. Before, an initial screening would suffice for school employees and contractors.
And some mandatory reporters, such as child care providers and teachers, now have to receive training.
Dr. Carrasco called the overhauls “really substantial changes.”
“I would say they should allow a lot more of the kids who fell through the cracks to be screened more effectively, and I hope that in time, this will change the number of fatalities and near-fatalities.”