The House Children and Youth Committee, in a string of unanimous votes today, gave its blessing to a package of bills meant to update Pennsylvania’s child protection laws in the wake of the major sex abuse scandals at Penn State and within the Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia.
The six-bill package, taken together, would make more people submit to clearance checks before they work with children in any capacity, and require more people to report to police or child welfare authorities if they suspect something is wrong.
At the same time, the state’s definitions of child abuse would be expanded to capture more types of behaviors, and the thresholds of injury required to make a case are being lowered.
“There may be some inconveniences for adults, but that’s life,” said Rep. Todd Stephens, a Republican from Montgomery County. “We’re here to protect children.”
Committee Chair Kathy Watson, R-Bucks County, said she expects the package to get votes on the House floor before the General Assembly breaks for the summer. That will set the stage, then, for work to resolve differences with the Senate.
Watson hopes for votes on a final package this fall.
Child advocates generally praised today’s changes, though a few observers complained they are still waiting for tangible efforts aimed at upgrading the child welfare agencies that must ultimately give the new laws life.
Until that happens, argued Berks County resident Donna Morganti of Families United, there is no guarantee that another case like Sandusky’s, where several opportunities to stop a serial pedophile were missed, won’t happen.
“DPW (The state Department of Public Welfare) and children and youth services are the ones that allowed that to go on, because they did nothing,” Morganti argued. “And these people are ignoring that.”
Anti-domestic violence crusaders have also called attention this spring to provisions they fear may go too far in risking separations between children and non-abusive, protective parents who don’t intervene or report abuse because of fears of retaliation that’s even worse.
But most observers saw the committee votes as a good step, adding that because of the nuances in the issues they are fine with taking additional time to balance the twin goals of providing additional protections to children without overstepping rights.
“I’m extremely happy that we’re seeing consistent progress on both sides of the General Assembly,” said Jason Kutalakis, a Carlisle attorney who served on the blue-ribbon Task Force on Child Protection that recommended changes to state laws last year.
For a look at that commission’s report, click here.
“There is still some work to do, but this is a solid step forward,” agreed Cathleen Palm of The Protect Our Children Committee.
Among the major moves in the House package is a reset to the definition of child abuse as found in state codes.
Physical abuse, for example, would encompass “bodily injury,” as opposed to the existing standard of “serious physical injury.”
A new set of specific incidents such as “forcefully shaking or striking a child under one year of age,” serious physical neglect, or even having a child present at the time of a drug deal or in a car driven by a drunk person would all trigger findings.
Another bill broadens the list of so-called “mandated reporters” – those obligated to report suspicions of child abuse – to include new categories including attorneys, librarians at public libraries, and paid or volunteer staff who regularly work directly with kids.
In a nod to the concealment problems exposed at Penn State and within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Phiadelphia, dual reports must now be filed with supervisors in the affected organization, and the state’s Childline system.
It also sets out with new clarity whether those reports get referred to children welfare caseworkers, to police, or both.
Other bills would require criminal history and child abuse background checks for all volunteers in positions where they are responsible for a child’s welfare, like youth sports coaches or school field trip chaperones, and standardize abuse language in the state’s school code with other laws.
A final bill in the House package balanced the changes with new safeguards for those being investigated by requiring, for example, that child welfare agency administrators and their solicitors sign off on all reports of indicated child abuse.
Perpatrators in cases with no serious injury or sexual abuse would also have the ability to petition for removal from the state’s child abuse registry after five incident-free years.
Joan Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, said she did not see any major area of conflict between the House and Senate on these bills. The main difference at this point, Benso said, is that the House is simply farther along.
That said, she applauded lawmakers for not rushing bills along in order to claim action on a popular cause.
“They’ve not taken the bait of the temptation to just pass a bunch of bills,” Benso said this afternoon. “That was the thing we were most afraid of, because on an issue like this there’s just no way you can really do that well.”