Pennsylvania group recommends guides for reporting child abuse
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HARRISBURG -- A state task force created in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal has given legislators a hefty load of recommendations to review, urging among its suggestions an overhaul of how Pennsylvania defines abuse and earmarking funding for children's advocacy centers.
The report from 11-member Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection also calls for expanding requirements regarding who must report suspected child abuse to outside investigators, increasing penalties for failure to report suspected abuse and tracking abuse reports at the state level instead of county-by-county.
"We attempted to be bold ... but also realistic," said Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler, who chaired the task force.
"We tried to do the very best we could to improve a system that is woefully failing in a number of ways."
The panel was appointed in January by legislative leaders and Gov. Tom Corbett to review state policies for reporting child abuse and procedures for child protection. It held hearings across the state, taking testimony from dozens involved in how those cases currently are handled.
Doctors on the panel said some recommendations would address frustrations they see in their own practices, such as suspecting abuse in instances that might fall outside current state definitions because a child was not in "severe pain" or showing "serious" bodily injury.
They suggested broadening how abuse is defined, as well as including cases where the perpetrator could not be identified in state victim statistics.
The list of those required to report abuse suspicions should grow to include coaches, attorneys, college administrators, librarians and anyone else working or volunteering in a role that brings them in regular contact with children, the panel said.
And schools should no longer have a different set of requirements for child abuse reporting, and instead should require teachers and personnel both to report abuse suspicions to an outside agency as well as to tell their supervisors.
The thick set of proposals checked off most of what Cathleen Palm of the Protect Our Children Committee had hoped to see. Her organization -- which had been seeking a review of child protection laws before the Sandusky charges unfolded -- sent a "bucket list" to the panel, which agreed on all points except their call for a state-level ombudsman for child-welfare issues.
"People really have to believe that there's a check-and-balance in the system, and right now in Pennsylvania, there's not a check-and-balance," Ms. Palm said.
Many of the recommendations would need the General Assembly to approve them next session in order to be enacted.
"I think this will be fast-tracked," said Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, who chairs the Senate Aging and Youth Committee and plans to introduce a set of bills in January. "Everyone knows how important this is."
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said he's optimistic that initial bills in response to the recommendations could reach the governor's desk early next year.
But he also acknowledged that some changes will take more time and require legislative hearings, a sentiment echoed by Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods.
Across the aisle, Democrats praised the task force for its work while some also called for steps to be taken immediately.
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said the Corbett administration should add more intake caseworkers to ChildLine, the state's child abuse reporting hotline.
Task force members noted that more than 8 percent of calls to the hotline -- which can be reached at 1-800-932-0313 -- were dropped before being answered.
Another area where immediate changes can begin would be encouraging counties to use multidisciplinary teams in investigating suspected abuse, said Jackie Bernard, a task force member and chief deputy district attorney in Blair County.
Counties already have the authority to use those teams, which combine the skills of law enforcement and child protection officials, she said.
Other recommendations, however, will require additional funding and time, such as expanding access to the county-based children's advocacy centers where multidisciplinary teams are commonly used.
"This needs to be an on-going process," Mr. Heckler said.
Gov. Tom Corbett said in a statement that he and his administration will review each recommendation, describing the report as "an important step in putting the protection of Pennsylvania's children first."
"It's my hope that we can take the work of the task force to help create a culture that promotes greater awareness, more accountability and better coordination," Mr. Corbett said.
The full report will be posted on the panel's website, www.childprotection.state.pa.us
First Published November 28, 2012 12:00 am