Pennsylvania is renewing its commitment to protect its children from child abuse.
More than a dozen pieces of legislation have been signed into law since December. This comprehensive package has resulted from years of diverse stakeholders consistently seeking to answer two fundamental questions: Why has Pennsylvania been a statistical outlier when it comes to child abuse and what does that mean for the safety and well-being of our children?
In 2012, Pennsylvania investigated abuse reports at a rate of 8.6 per 1,000 children; nationally the average rate was 42 per 1,000 children. One of every 1,000 children in our commonwealth is determined to be a victim of child abuse, while nationally the figure exceeds nine for every 1,000 children.
It took nearly two decades to cultivate reforms in how Pennsylvania defines, reports and investigates child abuse.
Between 1997 and 2008, modest child-protection improvements were put in place. The Joint State Government Commission’s Task Force on Services to Children and Youth was created. Legislation was enacted to require that child abuse be investigated via a team approach to minimize childhood trauma and avoid tainting victim testimony. Some loopholes in the mandatory reporting law were corrected. Additionally, the criminal statute and civil statute of limitations were extended in child sexual-abuse cases.
Still, Pennsylvania laws remained adult-driven, not child-centered.
Many cite the unfolding child-protection reforms as a consequence of one particular high-profile case. Those of us on the front lines of protecting children know that the serial abuse perpetrated by Jerry Sandusky, including at Penn State, proved a critical tipping point. It helped Pennsylvania, particularly policy makers, better understand that the trauma-filled childhoods of his victims was shared by countless other Pennsylvania children.
In 2011, the Pennsylvania General Assembly created the Task Force on Child Protection with the charge to restore “public confidence” in the state’s child-protection efforts. Today, the fruits of shared labor are taking root to better protect our children. These include:
• Recognizing that certain acts, such as burning a child or forcefully striking a child under age, is child abuse regardless of whether bodily injury occurs;
• Enhancing penalties for aggravated assault when a child is under the age of 6;
• Strengthening the criminal justice system’s response to child pornography;
• Requiring reporting of suspected child abuse immediately to trained authorities outside one’s own company or institution;
• Increasing accountability if a person willfully fails to report suspected child abuse;
• Tracking child-neglect cases to ensure that prior neglect reports are considered in assessing a child’s safety when a new report is made;
• Dedicating money for children’s advocacy centers so investigations are child-centered and coordinated among law-enforcement, child-welfare authorities and service providers;
• Protecting survivors of childhood sexual or physical abuse by having identities shielded by the courts; and
• Modernizing ChildLine, the state’s child-abuse reporting hotline, so information between police and child-welfare authorities is shared in real time.
Enacting laws was the easier part. The harder work is just beginning. Now we must focus on:
• Ensuring parents are more fully supported so they have the competence and confidence to effectively nurture, protect and educate their children, in part by discouraging harsh parenting practices;
• Inviting and preparing every adult to be ready to step in and speak up when a child is in harm’s way;
• Engaging communities to understand that protecting children and reducing adverse childhood experiences is a shared responsibility; and
• Assuring child protection remains a priority in Harrisburg so that never again does Pennsylvania fall behind instead of proving itself a leader in protecting children and strengthening families.
Mary Carrasco is director of A Child’s Place at Mercy, a children’s advocacy center affiliated with Pittsburgh Mercy Health System (www.achildsplaceatmercy.org). Cathleen Palm is founder of The Center for Children’s Justice, a statewide children’s advocacy organization based in Bernville (www.C4CJ.org).