Pennsylvania State Senate Panel Hears Fresh Calls for Post-Sandusky Child Abuse Law Changes

By Charles Thompson
April 10, 2013

Pennsylvania state Capitol

The chair of the Pennsylvania Senate's Public Heath and Welfare Committee said she wants to see a package of bills designed to strengthen protections for children from all forms of abuse moved to Gov. Corbett's desk by the end of the year.

But Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland County, cautioned it may take that much time to ensure the legislature is making the child protection system as strong as possible in Pennsylvania in the wake of sensational cases like the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

"I think we've learned a lot," Vance said after a hearing today on the findings of a blue-ribbon task force empaneled last year to recommend changes. "But have we learned enough to legislate intelligently? That is the question."

But task force leaders were clear enough about their must-dos.

They continued to hone in on the need for Pennsylvania to broaden its current definitions of child abuse so state reporting systems catch more of the cases that are investigated, and information on the families involved is accessible to those who need it.

At present, Dr. Cindy Christian noted, because cases regarding issues like home cleanliness, nutrition or neglect are not deemed abuse at present, too many children get left in dangerous situations where appropriate red flags have never been raised.

Christian, a noted abuse expert who recently became the City of Philadelphia's first Medical Director, said all too often she has come across cases where after the fact it became clear the same family had a long history in the system but - for legal reasons - the information was never shared to the next investigator who could use it.

It's "report. Report. Report. Report. Report. Report. Report. Report. Death," Christian said. ".... That is more common than you can imagine."

She also argued for a carve-out in the state's law restricting disclosure of a patient's medical information so doctors who encounter child abuse know that beyond simply making reports of their suspicions, they can freely discuss specific injuries they have seen with police and child welfare investigators.

"You need to have good information in in order to get good information out," Christian said.

Current laws probably weren't intended to do it, Christian said, but they have had the effect of "freezing people, and it prevents them from sharing some very important information. Pennsylvania could lead the way... in specifying that we want information sharing between doctors and others who are responsible for the safety of our children."

Vance said that she was in support of that. "I have thought for a long time that our HIPPA (patient privacy) laws have been carried too far," she said.

The other issue highlighted today was the task force's emphasis on the creation of more children's advocacy centers around Pennsylvania.

Such centers - which already exist in the midstate - provide a place where police and child welfare investigators can work together on a case of suspected abuse, with medical expertise as needed.

They also are designed to minimize the burden on youthful victims by, for example, taping one-time interviews led by specially-trained staff so that children aren't forced to recount their stories to a series of strangers over and over again.

Having a fully functional child advocacy center, task force member and Carlisle attorney Jason Kutalakis said, also helps to create an environment where children and youth caseworkers are more likely to stay in the field because they feel empowered to do good work.

That's important in a state where, all too often, the case workers are young college graduates who only stay in the field until they can get another job, noted Acting Secretary of Public Welfare Bev Mackereth.

"Most of our workforce leaves before the training is completed," Mackereth, who also served on the Legislative Child Abuse Task Force last year, said. "That doesn't do us a whole lot of good."

Mackereth said, in an ideal world, additional resources would be devoted to raise the salaries of the child welfare caseworkers.

To read the Pennsylvania Legislative Commission on Child Protection's full report, click here.

In all, Vance said there are at least 16 bills introduced in the Senate dealing with task force-related proposals. Others bills have already started to move in the state House of Representatives.



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