HARRISBURG – The special panel created in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal is calling for a complete overhaul in the way Pennsylvania addresses child abuse, from expanding the list of those who must report abuse to toughening laws that it said have failed to protect children.
A report issued Monday by the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection recommends redefining what constitutes child abuse, expanding the definition of “perpetrator,” and enacting harsher penalties for those who fail to report abuse.
“We did our very best to improve a system that is woefully failing,” said the commission chairman, Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler. “This was not a knee-jerk reaction. It was the seizing of an opportunity to look at a system and say, ‘How do we make this better?’ ”
Heckler referenced the event that led to the creation of the 11-member task force in January: the arrest of Sandusky, a former assistant Pennsylvania State University football coach who is now serving a 30- to 60-year sentence for molesting 10 boys.
Had the report’s recommendations been in place by the late 1990s, Heckler said, Sandusky would have been jailed long ago and more youngsters would not have been victimized.
Gov. Corbett applauded the panel’s work and said the state must close gaps in communications and enforcement among state and local governments, police, and health and welfare agencies.
“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,” Corbett said in a statement.
The governor did not immediately offer a timetable for the proposed changes, some of which, task force members said, could be accomplished by state and local governments and social-service agencies.
Other recommendations, members said, would need legislative action or additional funding – such as creating a database of abuse reports and adding staff for investigations and hotlines.
State House and Senate leaders joined Corbett in praising the report and promised to move quickly to address recommendations in its 400-plus pages.
“In some cases, legislative action can and will be swift,” said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware). “Other recommendations will require more time to implement, and some may require additional public hearings. Still others will require a substantial investment of tax dollars.”
Key among the recommendations is changing the definition of child abuse to establish that children need not experience severe pain for abuse to be substantiated.
“What is child abuse in every other state is not child abuse in Pennsylvania,” said panel member Cindy Christian, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania and a specialist in child abuse. “They may have bruises all over their body and they may not be in severe pain. The definition is problematic and vague.”
When abuse is suspected, not only would witnesses – such as Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary, who testified of having seen Sandusky assaulting a boy in a locker-room shower – have to report to superiors, they would have to call Childline, the state hotline for child abuse reporting. “There’s built-in redundancy,” said panel member Jason Katulakis, a lawyer.
Child-welfare advocates said they were generally pleased with the recommendations, calling them long overdue. They also voiced concerns that the cost of implementation might be prohibitive.
Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Protect Our Children Committee, a statewide advocacy group, credited the report with addressing more than just issues arising from the Sandusky case.
But Palm said she was troubled that the task force did not call for an independent children’s ombudsman, especially since testimony indicated some of Sandusky’s victims felt they had no one to turn to outside “the system.”
Heckler said the panel felt there was no need for an ombudsman because in Pennsylvania, unlike in some states, county-level agencies that investigate child-abuse reports operate independently of the state bureaucracy.