Saving the children: Harrisburg should act to strengthen abuse laws

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If anything positive has come out of Penn State University's harrowing sex abuse scandal, it is the uptick in government attention to child abuse prevention.

In response to the recommendations of a task force on child protection convened after Jerry Sandusky's conviction of child molestation last year, a package of six sweeping bills was voted out of the state House Children and Youth Committee on Tuesday. The legislation is likely to reach the House floor this summer. The bills aim to strengthen child abuse law by broadening the definition of abuse, requiring additional background checks for workers interacting with children and mandating more people, such as lawyers and clergy, to report suspected abuse.

If the Senate and House agree, Pennsylvania may see much-needed, far-reaching reform that could go a long way toward preventing and trying child abuse.

Pennsylvania currently lags behind other states in child abuse convictions, but that doesn't mean the state has a disproportionately low incidence of abuse. Experts believe that Pennsylvania's unreasonably high threshold for what constitutes child abuse is to blame.

House Bill 726 would lower that threshold. The bill would broaden Pennsylvania's definition of child abuse to include causing "substantial" pain or injury to a child, as well as some specific acts that would constitute abuse regardless of whether pain or injury occurs, such as shaking or burning. Currently, a decades-old statute mandates that incidents be linked to serious injury or "severe" pain to substantiate a claim of child abuse.

The strengthening of the state's law could not come a moment too soon: Last year, Pennsylvania reported more incidents of suspected child abuse than in any year since 1973, indicating an increase in public vigilance and willingness to report abuse.

But until Pennsylvania law falls into step with child abuse law across the nation, children will continue to be put at risk by the legal system. Lawmakers owe it to Pennsylvania's children to pass strong measures for their protection.

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