HARRISBURG -- Seven bills aimed at strengthening Pennsylvania's child abuse laws sailed unanimously through a Senate committee Tuesday.
The bills, prompted by recommendations from the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection, convened in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, would update the state's definition of child abuse, clarify who is a mandatory reporter of such abuse and increase penalties for failing to report abuse, among a number of other changes.
Updating the definition of abuse is a major part of the overhaul; Pennsylvania is considered an outlier among states as having a high threshold for what legally constitutes child abuse.
State law says that a child must suffer "serious" bodily injury to be considered abused, the proposed changes would lower that standard to just "bodily injury."
"Before we can do anything to improve our child abuse reporting system, enhance care for victims and families, or toughen prosecution of offenders, we must be able to clearly define what is and is not child abuse," said Sen. LeAnna Washington, D-Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Aging and Youth Committee and a sponsor of the bill to overhaul the definition.
Current law and the proposed changes allow a religious exemption -- meaning withholding needed medical care from a child due to religious beliefs would not be considered abuse.
However, the "belief must be consistent with a bona fide religion" and county child welfare agencies can "closely monitor the child and shall seek court-ordered intervention if the lack of medical care threatens the child's life or long-term health," according to a memo on the bill by Ms. Washington.
The exemption is an area of concern, said Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Protect Our Children Committee.
"If a child needs medical or surgical care, we should really be consistent in making sure they get access to it," she said.
A number of similar changes related to child protection have already been passed by the House, though there are some differences that would need to be clarified before the bills could become law. The differences in House and Senate bills and the line between what is considered acceptable discipline versus what is abuse "needs a little fine-tuning yet," Ms. Palm noted.
The bills next head to the appropriations committee, then to the full Senate for a vote. Floor votes are planned for most or all of the bills next week and they are expected to pass, said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for the majority Senate Republicans.
Kate Giammarise: email@example.com or 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.