Sweeping Improvements to Pennsylvania’s Child Protection Laws

Sen. Bob Mensch (R-24), Chair, Senate Aging and Youth Committee

While vigorous debate over key issues continues at the state Capitol, Senate lawmakers have worked together in a bipartisan manner to pass sweeping improvements in our child protection laws.

Few things tear at the heart like a case of an abused child. It’s even worse when it’s apparent that an adult, somewhere along the line, could have prevented it. As Chairman of the Senate Aging and Youth Committee, I believe the renewed focus on child abuse in Pennsylvania over the last year has provided an opportunity to help implement comprehensive reforms that will improve child protection, especially at the point when someone first suspects child abuse.

This effort began when the legislature created the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection in December 2011. The panel held a series of public meetings and released its legislative recommendations in November 2012. I’m proud to report that the Senate has unanimously passed 11 bills based on those recommendations.

Several of the measures target the tragic circumstances when child abuse goes unreported.

Senate Bill 21 makes critical updates to the list of individuals who are required to report child abuse, to add all health care professionals and health care facilities, school employees, coaches and independent contractors in schools, and any individual paid or unpaid who accepts direct responsibility for a child. Senate Bill 22 increases the penalty for failure to report child abuse and targets those who conceal abuse.

Senate Bill 31 closes a loophole in current law in which there is no requirement to report suspected child abuse when the alleged perpetrator is a school employee unless it rises to the level of a “serious bodily injury.” The bill would eliminate what is now a separate system for reporting abuse by school employees. Senate Bill 29 requires health care providers to immediately report if a newborn is identified as being affected by prenatal exposure to illegal substances, and anyone who in good faith reports suspected child abuse receives employee whistleblower protection under Senate Bill 33.

Once previously unreported cases of child abuse get the attention they deserve, it’s important that cases are handled in a coordinated, responsible manner. Senate Bill 1116 will provide for multidisciplinary investigative teams to coordinate child abuse investigations between county agencies and law enforcement.  A multidisciplinary investigation reduces child trauma by allowing a team to coordinate everyone involved in an investigation, subjecting the child to only one forensic interview that can be used throughout the investigation and prosecution of the alleged abuse. This speeds up the process of stopping the perpetrator and helps the child move forward in recovery.

To improve the exchange of child abuse information among licensed medical practitioners and county agencies, Senate Bill 27 requires medical practitioners to file immediate reports of abuse with the county, and allows for follow-up reports to medical practitioners regarding the condition of the child.

Additionally, to help various agencies more easily provide and share information, Senate Bill 24 requires the Department of Public Welfare to establish a secure, statewide database to include reports of child abuse and children in need of protective services.

In 2009, Pennsylvania’s rate of substantiated child abuse was 1.4 per 1,000 children and the national rate was 9.3 per 1,000 children. Pennsylvania’s rate fell to 1.3 per in 2010. Clearly, our current laws are not adequate to fully investigate and prosecute such cases. Our current legal definitions do not cover the scope of modern day abuse. Senate Bill 23 updates the definition of “perpetrator” and broadens the definition of “person responsible for a child’s welfare” to include any individual who has direct or regular contact with a child via schools, the workplace, churches and other organizations, regardless of where the abuse occurs.

Senate Bill 28 further strengthens Pennsylvania’s child abuse laws by recognizing that perpetrators can be as young as 18, expanding the definition of aggravated assault in child abuse cases, and making it illegal to intimidate or retaliate against a person filing the report on behalf of the abused child.

Finally, because false child abuse reports can ruin lives and divert resources and attention from real cases of abuse, Senate Bill 30 establishes due process protections for individuals working with delinquent children, and provides for penalties for making false reports of child abuse.

We know we can’t shield children from all of life’s hardships. But acts that steal their innocence and leave lasting scars that impair their healthy development demand a unified resistance on the part of caring adults.  Senate passage of this bipartisan child protection package represents a significant step forward. Enactment will lead to a safer upbringing for Pennsylvania children.

Contact:

Sarah Stroman sstroman@pasen.gov
(215) 541-2388