Bills would overhaul Pa.’s child-abuse reporting system

HARRISBURG – Legislation to overhaul Pennsylvania’s child-abuse reporting system is on a fast track.

More than two dozen bills – including ones that would broaden the definition of child abuse – are under consideration in the House and Senate, four months after a task force released its report in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

At a news conference in the Capitol on Monday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers announced a 16-bill package based on recommendations by the task force.

Among the proposals is a bill expanding the definition of child abuse to include a range of actions such as kicking, biting or throwing; shaking a child less than a year old; driving with a child while under the influence; and leaving a child in the care of a sexual predator.

Under current law, a perpetrator must be found to have caused serious injury to a child in order to be charged criminally.

“Unless someone is wearing black-and-blue marks, we may not recognize them as the victim of child abuse,” said State Sen. Bob Mensch (R., Berks), chairman of the committee on children and youth.

Another bill would expand the list of mandatory reporters – legally required to report child-abuse allegations to authorities – to include after-school supervisors, coaches, scout troop leaders, and camp counselors.

Sandusky, a longtime assistant Penn State football coach, used the charity he founded for troubled teenagers to gain access to boys whom he later molested, according to a grand jury’s report.

Some of the proposals predate the Sandusky case, such as a bill sponsored by State Rep. Wayne Fontana (D., Allegheny) requiring school employees to report abuse to police or other outside authorities.

Senators said they hoped to have the package enacted before their summer break. Similar bills are moving through the House.

Cathleen Palm, a child advocate whose calls for a task force on child abuse predated Sandusky’s 2011 arrest, said she was glad to see both chambers “actively engaged” on the issue.

But sharp differences remain between some of the House and Senate proposals. A House version, for instance, lets parents and others use limited force in disciplining children – which Palm contended wrongly sets “degrees of pain” and thus lowers the bar for abusers. “It’s worse than what we have now,” she said.

Several House members are also pushing measures to address statutes of limitations for adults abused as children to bring claims against their alleged abusers. Currently, accusers cannot sue after age 30; criminal cases cannot be brought after age 50.

Reps. Michael P. McGeehan (D., Phila.) and Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) held a news conference Monday focusing on legislation to create a temporary two-year window allowing accusers to sue after age 30. The lawmakers also want to suspend the sovereign immunity that protects school and government officials from civil liability in such cases.

Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler, who headed the task force, said the panel did not look at that issue. He said he believes the existing statute of limitations works.


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