HARRISBURG -- A Senate committee heard testimony Wednesday on changing and broadening the state's definition of child abuse -- one of the key recommendations of a task force convened in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
The bill would define child abuse as recklessly or intentionally acting against a child, causing bodily injury or serious bodily injury. It also lists a number of acts that would constitute abuse, such as kicking, burning, forcefully shaking or slapping a child less than 1 year old, and physical neglect.
Advocates in Pennsylvania say the state undercounts cases of child abuse because the current definition of abuse is too narrow.
Pennsylvania is a statistical outlier in terms of national data on child abuse and neglect, said Cathy Utz, acting deputy secretary for the Department of Public Welfare's office of Children, Youth and Families. Part of the reason is that the state's threshold for substantiation of physical abuse is higher than in other states, Ms. Utz told the Senate committee on aging and youth.
"We commend the legislation's sponsors for lowering the standard for physical abuse from 'severe pain' to 'substantial pain,' " Ms. Utz said Wednesday.
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 last week by the state DPW. There were 33 substantiated child fatalities in Pennsylvania in 2012 and 48 near-fatalities.
The bill as it stands now also provides several exclusions from child abuse, such as practices consistent with religious beliefs and use of reasonable force for disciplinary purposes.
One doctor testifying before the committee said he believed the religious exemption should not be included, stating children should all be provided equal protection under the law.
"All parents have a duty to provide medical care when needed to prevent substantial harm regardless of their religious beliefs," said Pat Bruno, a pediatrician with extensive experience in evaluating child maltreatment. Dr. Bruno cited the case of a 9-year-old boy who died from a treatable form of leukemia whose father believed in faith healing, and the case of six children in Philadelphia who died from measles; their parents belonged to a church that refused immunizations.
Sen. Bob Mensch, R-Montgomery, who leads the aging and youth committee, said he believes the legislation could pass later this year.
"We still have a bit of crafting to do," he said. "We intend to be purposeful."
Kate Giammarise: email@example.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter: @KateGiammarise.