By Charles Thompson
The state House of Representatives quickly passed three additional bills Monday in a growing child protection package that supporters say will stand as one of the crowning achievements of the 2013-14 legislative session.
Today's key vote was passage of House Bill 726, a bill that rewrites and expands the legal definitions of child abuse.
Supporters hope the changes will give county caseworkers and police tools to intervene more quickly in more cases, with the effect of extending help to families who need it and, where appropriate, stopping abusers before kids are hurt or killed.
The update was identified as one of the state’s most pressing needs by a blue ribbon task force empaneled after former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s arrest on child sex abuse charges in November 2011.
“I do think that the way you define child abuse is where things start,” said Dr. Cindy Christian, medical director for the Philadelphia Department of Human Services and a leading child abuse expert at Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania.
Existing definitions, Christian said, “have not worked and have left children vulnerable."
Statistics bear that out.
According to data compiled by The Center for Children and Justice, in 2011 just 1.2 of 1,000 Pennsylvania children were deemed victims of child abuse. Nationally, that rate was 9.1 per 1,000, a difference many attribute to the definitions in place here.
“For years, children and youth caseworkers… have been forced to leave children in situations that were unsafe because the power of the law was not on the side of the child,” said Rep. Scott Petri, the Bucks County Republican who sponsored the definitions bill.
The biggest change in the new bill is actually a deletion.
Child abuse findings in Pennsylvania would no longer require demonstrations of serious physical injury, a threshold defined as including "severe pain... or impairment of a child’s physical functioning."
The bill passed Monday replaces that language with “bodily injury… through any recent act or failure to act.”
It also adds a number of de facto triggers that, when committed intentionally, knowingly or recklessly, are automatically considered abuse:
- Kicking, burning or cutting a child under age 18.
- Forcefully shaking a baby under one year old.
- Interfering with a child’s breathing.
- Causing a child to be present in a residence being used as a meth lab.
- Knowingly letting a child with a sex offender.
The bill also contains language designed to ensure that all assault convictions in criminal court where children are the victims are routinely shared with county children and youth services agencies, to ensure those convicts are flagged as abusers too.
- So will they be on an online child abuser registry?
Coupled with other updates in who gets listed on the state's database - which helps keep identified abusers out of schools, day care centers and other functions where they have regular contact with children - and still-emerging changes in how suspicions of child abuse are reported, the package’s supporters say it works together to make Pennsylvania a safer place for children.
But Monday's bill is the centerpiece.
"We’ve been living for too long in a state where children were suffering broken bones, lacerations and burns, and we said: ‘This wasn’t an act of child abuse,’” said Cathleen Palm, a founder of The Center for Children and Justice.
“These changes are really about getting sooner to the aid of children who are experiencing some level of physical injury.”
House Bill 321, which upgrades the crimes related to child pornography, and requires a sentencing enhancement for those possessing, distributing or producing child pornography.
The task force on child protection had noted that at present, sentences for child pornography ranged too widely across the state, sometimes ranging as low as probation, which members felt was not appropriate.
House Bill 414, a bill that requires county judges to screen parties to any child custody hearings for past findings of child abuse, and to take those histories into consideration in any decisions.
In all the General Assembly has now sent eight bills to Gov. Tom Corbett for enactment this fall, with another round – including the update to the state’s reporting requirements – expected next year.
Corbett is expected to sign the bills Wednesday, after his office completes a review of the final language.
Child advocates made some concessions in negotiations this fall, in the interest of maximizing support for the definitions rewrite.
For example, Palm noted driving drunk with child passengers in the car, or dealing illegal drugs with a child present were dropped from the final language as automatic child abuse indicators.
Advocates for parental rights successfully lobbied for inclusion of language specifying that parents still have the right to use reasonable force to discipline children, as long as they aren’t willfully causing injury.
Nor can an abuse finding be lodged against a household simply because of “environmental factors,” like a low-income family who can’t afford three meals a day or has had utilities cut off because of an inability to pay.
Excitement over passage of Petri's bill was also tempered Monday by the extension of the law's effective date to January 2015, though drafters say that time is necessary to train, county caseworkers, police, medical workers and others on the changes being adopted, and to allow for scheduled upgrades to state Department of Public Welfare computer systems.
The positive in that, Palm said, is it gives lawmakers time to finish work on another key part of the package: expanding the list of who must report suspected cases of child abuse and clarifying what and to whom they are required to report.
That bill is currently hung up over how to treat lawyers’ attorney / client privileges, though some House and Senate aides say they expect those differences will be resolved by early next year.