Over the course of the week, state lawmakers are expected to vote on a variety of changes to the state’s child protection laws. The changes come about from a task force formed to look into gaps in the state’s laws in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
“More and more people are aware or have concerns about suspected child abuse and don’t report it because they aren’t sure of their obligations,” said Rep. Todd Stephens (R-151st), who sponsored a bill stiffening penalties for failure to report abuse.
Under his bill, a person who is mandated to report abuse but doesn’t could be charged with a felony under certain conditions. The failure to report would have to be willful, and the abuse itself would have to be a felony. A person who prevents someone from making a report of suspected abuse could also be found guilty of a felony under the same circumstances.
Another bill broadens the definition of child abuse in a variety of ways.
Lawmakers also are considering expanding the list of mandatory reporters to include, among others, people licensed in any health-related field overseen by the Department of State, religious leaders, attorneys and school employees.
“Having more mandatory reporters, I think, will help protect more children, not just the headline-type cases but the day in and day out cases of people who are dealing with children on a regular basis,” said Sen. Lisa Baker (R-12th).
The Pennsylvania Psychological Association raised concerns about some of the proposals, including upgrading failure to a report to a felony. The association’s director of professional affairs, Sam Knapp, also questioned what would happen in cases where a licensed professional may never see the child in question. He pointed out some cases are more “ambiguous” than others.
Knapp said the association supports a measure to increase education and training for mandatory reporters.
Jennifer Storm, who serves as Victim Advocate of the Commonwealth, said many of the proposed changes are overdue and will bring Pennsylvania in line with other states.
One provision would require reports of suspected child abuse be made not just to someone’s work supervisor but also to the state’s Department of Public Welfare.
“We live in a culture that silence is sexual violence,” said Storm. “It certainly will increase the workload for state employees. It’s certainly going to increase the calls into (the Department of Public Welfare child abuse) hotline. But, at the end of the day, then that means we’re taking care of our children in a better way.”
Last year, the department received a record 26,664 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect, according to a report on the department’s website (click here to view). Of those reports, 13 percent of them were substantiated.
It’s unclear if lawmakers will provide added resources to the Department of Public Welfare to investigate claims of abuse, should they continue to rise with these proposed changes to state laws.
“As we move on down the road here, we’ll be taking a look at what the numbers are at DPW. And, if we need to make adjustments to their budget, then we’ll do that,” said Rep. Stephens.