This week I participated in a hearing held by the House Judiciary Committee to receive and review the report of the Task Force on Child Protection we created in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.
As someone who has worked in the judicial system as an attorney representing children in juvenile and Children and Youth Services cases, I know there are many areas in the law we can clarify and strengthen to help protect our children.
These are often uncomfortable to discuss, but we need to have an honest conversation about child abuse in order to find ways to help prevent it from occurring. The full report is more than 400 pages long and contains numerous recommendations for the Legislature to enact in the coming months.
Here is a very brief overview of some of changes recommended the Task Force.
Proposed amendments to the Child Protective Services Law include changing the definition of child abuse by eliminating the requirement that the child experience severe pain, eliminate “non-accidental” and replace with “reckless and intentional behavior,” which would include forcibly shaking or slapping a child younger than 1, interfering with the breathing of a child, allowing a child to be present at sites of criminal activities and lowering the threshold from "serious bodily injury" to "bodily injury."
The definition of “sexual abuse” would be broadened to include engaging in sexually explicit conversations and looking at the intimate part of a child or encouraging a child to look at the intimate parts of another person for the purposes of sexual gratification of any party.
The definition of "perpetrator" would be expanded from "a parent, a person responsible for the welfare of a child, an individual residing in the same house or a paramour of a child's parent" to include employees or volunteers who have direct or regular contact with a child as a result of involvement in programs, services or activities such as camps, athletic programs, enrichment programs and scouting troops.
It is suggested that the definition of perpetrator would also be expanded to include possible abuse from school teachers and employees, persons employed in programs, activities or services that include enrichment and other programs, clubs and coaches, any person present in the child's home when the alleged abuse occurred, an individual related to the child by birth, marriage or adoption to the fifth-degree and former paramours of a child's parent and former step-parents.
The Task Force also recommends expanding the list of mandatory reporters, which are people who are obligated to report any suspected child abuse. The Task Force suggests specifically including college administrators and employees, coaches, attorneys, librarians, persons working or volunteering in programs, services or activities if they have an integral role in the program and accept responsibility for children, commercial film processors if child abuse is depicted, persons who repair or service computers or other technology equipment if child abuse isdepicted.
It is also recommended that institutional staff employees and independent contractors must directly report to ChildLine and notify the administrators within the institution and require mandatory reporting of infants born suffering from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
Another area of the Task Force report focuses on increased penalties for failure to report suspected child abuse. The report suggests expanding immunity and protection from intimidation and retaliation for good faith reporting, increase the penalty for willful failure to report suspected abuse from a third to a second degree misdemeanor, revoking the professional license of anyone who fails to report suspected child abuse, requiring all professionals who are mandated reporters to report any arrest or conviction to their relevant licensing authority and suggests criminal sanctions for making false reports.
The Task Force report also makes suggestions on improved information sharing, child abuse clearance requirements, education and training for professionals, the development of a comprehensive child protective services database and many other common sense steps we can take to minimize the problem of child abuse in Pennsylvania.
I look forward to reviewing the complete work of the Task Force and hopefully working in a bipartisan way to implementing these recommendations to make Pennsylvania’s children safer.
The full Task Force report can be found at www.childprotection.state.pa.us