Harrisburg – The process of overhauling Pennsylvania’s child protection laws continued to move forward today with a joint Senate hearing co-chaired by Sen. Bob Mensch (R-24) to discuss legislative recommendations by the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection.
The Senate Aging and Youth Committee, chaired by Senator Mensch, and the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, chaired by Sen. Pat Vance (R-31), heard from task force members and Acting Public Welfare Secretary Beverly Mackereth.
“This is the first step in a journey to better protect Pennsylvania children. We’re going to move cautiously, but we are going to act,” said Mensch.
Task force members on hand included its chairman, Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler; Dr. Cindy Christian, director of Safe Place: The Center for Child Protection and Health at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; and attorney Jason Kutulakis.
The task force members encouraged greater use of Multidisciplinary Investigative Teams, composed of county prosecutors, law enforcement and child advocates, whose sole mission is to stop offenders from preying upon children. The panel also endorsed Child Advocacy Centers, where a qualified forensics interviewer speaks with children who may be victims of abuse, and “academies” to improve training of case workers.
According to the task force testifiers, Pennsylvania has a multi-tiered system when it comes to child abuse allegations that is inclusive of our criminal justice system to investigate crimes and child protective services to ensure the safety of the child as well as determines if there are any further victims. Far too often, police and child protective services work in “silos” when it comes to investigations – within narrow communication channels where information is not always shared. In addition, state health privacy (HIPPA) laws can hinder the exchange of information necessary for an investigation, task force members said.
Acting Secretary Mackereth, who spent 20 years as a county case worker, explained the obstacles faced by case workers when investigating potential abuse. The Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection was created by the passage of Senate Resolution 250 in December 2011. The panel held a series of public meetings and released its report in November 2012.
The task force recommendations led to the introduction of a bipartisan package of legislation to provide sweeping improvements to Pennsylvania’s child protection laws. Senator Mensch is sponsoring Senate Bill 27 to improve the exchange of information among medical practitioners and county agencies. He also drafted Senate Bill 33 to provide employee whistleblower protection for child abuse reporting.
“I am grateful of the hard work done by the Task Force on Child Protection to identify weaknesses in our current child protection laws and recommend legislative improvements,” said Mensch. “We will continue to rely on their counsel as we move our legislative package forward toward the goal of safeguarding children from the heinous crime of child abuse.”
(Video of the hearing is posted on the committee website.)