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REFORMING CHILD ABUSE LAWS IN PENNSYLVANIA

Posted in Child Abuse, Custody, Protection from Abuse

On December 18th, Governor Corbett signed into law a bill updating Pennsylvania’s child abuse laws. When the abuses perpetrated by Jerry Sandusky were exposed, Pennsylvania’s child abuse statutes were scrutinized and found lacking in many respects. Sara Ganim of the Harriburg area Patriot-News wrote an excellent summary of these criticisms in November 2012. The investigation and arrest of Jerry Sandusky led to the creation in December 2011 by Pennsylvania’s General Assembly of the bi-partisan Taskforce on Child Protection.  This taskforce was asked to study child abuse protection and develop some meaningful reforms. It issued its final report and recommendations in November 2012.

The updated law is a considerable improvement from the previous law, noteably, expanding the definition of child abuse to include, simply, ”bodily injury” (a lower standard than the previous “serious bodily injury”) and knowingly, recklessly, or intentionally committing acts of child abuse or failing to act when child abuse is being committed (emphasis added). It also proviodes immunity from liability for reporters, as well as an improved appeals process. Believe it or not, trying to lure a child into a vehicle or structure was not a specific offense, but that major oversight has finally been rectifified, as well, with the new law.

The definition of “perpetrator” has also been expanded to include family members of the child, as well as employees, volunteers, school teachers, and employees that have regular contact with the child. Previously, it was essentially limited to a parent, parent’s boyfriend/girlfriend, an individual over 14 living in the same house, or a person “responsible for the welfare of the welfare of the child.” Based on the Sandusky case, the latter part of the definition caused more questions and inaction than serving as what I interpret to be the intended ”catch-all” language to cover anyone who was involved in the care of children. The Sandusky case started the discussion as to who exactly fell under the definition of being “responsible for the welfare” of a child? It was simply too broad and, as we saw in that case, too easy to justify inaction on the basis that a potential reporter had insufficient contact with the child.

As of 2010, Pennsylvania reported the lowest substantiated abuse rate in the country: 1.3 per 1,000 children (compared to the national average of 9.2 per 1,000 children). These updates, however, demonstrate how the old law hamstrung Pennsylvania’s child abuse investigative units by narrowing the definitions of abuse and perpetrator, and forcing them to reach the higher threshold of proving “serious bodily injury” to constitute abuse. Consequently, if an allegation of abuse was “unfounded” simply because the police or Children and Youth Services could not reach their evidentiary thresholds under the old law compared to the new law, then that statistic is illegitimate.

The influence of the Sandusky crimes on this law are apparent; the impact of the grand jury investigation and alleged cover-up by Penn State employees and administrators is clear. It may have taken three years since the creation of the Taskforce on Child Protection to bring about some reform, but they necessary improvements.  For a more complete summary of the changes to the law, read James Boyles’ article in the Newtown (PA) Patch.