Protect the children: Pa. senators can fix the state’s abuse laws

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Members of the Pennsylvania Senate have a chance to add important protections for the state’s children next week when child abuse reforms — proposed in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University — are expected to come up for a vote.

Three Senate committees this week advanced six bills, the most important of which was House Bill 726. It would change the definition of what constitutes child abuse, making it tougher and bringing it into line with the standards used in many other states.

Under current state law, child abuse is limited to instances in which serious physical, mental or sexual abuse is sustained. Child advocates have long argued that including the word “serious” in Pennsylvania’s legal threshold is the reason the state is a statistical outlier in the number of child abuse cases reported. In 2011, for instance, Pennsylvania had 1.2 abuse victims per 1,000 children versus a national rate of 9.1 per 1,000, according to the Protect Our Children Committee.

HB 726 would change that. In addition, it specifically lists a number of acts that would legally constitute abuse — including kicking, biting, burning, throwing, stabbing and cutting, as well as shaking or slapping a child under the age of 1.

The measure already has passed the House, along with five other bills that would, among other things, expand the list of who is legally required to report abuse, mandate additional training for those individuals and address child custody decisions and the expunging of records from the state’s child abuse database.

It’s impossible to know whether stronger laws on the state’s books could have done anything to prevent Sandusky from sexually abusing 10 boys over a period of 15 years. It is possible to know that a civil society must make every effort to keep children safe from predators like Sandusky.

The state Senate can do that next week by voting in favor of the package of bills that strengthen Pennsylvania’s child abuse laws.

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