After this autumn's revelation of a child sex abuse scandal at Penn State University, children's advocates are renewing their calls for the General Assembly to create a task force to overhaul the Commonwealth's child abuse laws.
Scott Hollander, Executive Director of KidsVoice, said that he supports an upcoming measure from Westmoreland County Senator Kim Ward to create such a task force.
"It would be people appointed by the governor's office, the House, the Senate, and there would be use of experts in the field — pediatricians, child advocates," said Hollander. "They would look at these issues, conduct hearings over a six-month period, and come back with recommendations for overall addressing what the changes should be, to look at who should report, what should be reported, and to whom."
Advocates point to Pennsylvania's lower than average rate of investigation into child abuse reports, citing the state's stringent definition of child abuse as a prime factor. Cathleen Palm, Executive Director of the Protect Our Children Committee, said that Pennsylvania authorities investigate less than one percent of child abuse reports, while the national rate is just more than 4%.
"It's a reflection of what our law says is and is not child abuse," said Palm. "So, it's probably long past time that we take a look and say, 'What is, in our collective community wisdom, what is and what is not child abuse, and is it time to look at that?'"
Several bills to reform Pennsylvania's child abuse laws have emerged in recent weeks, in both the House and the Senate. The measures would spread the onus of reporting child abuse to more individuals, and increase the penalties for witholding information. Hollander said that each of the bills is incomplete.
"They're a rush to address one type of situation," said Hollander, "and it's understandable. There's been tremendous public outrage about that situation. But in doing that, it really requires a more thorough, comprehensive look at what the law should be for all situations."
In addition to Senator Ward's bill, Representative Jake Wheatley also called on the legislature to enact a child abuse reform commission. Palm said that such a commission is necessary to look at the many important questions that have long surrounded state law.
"What should we be doing? Is our definition [of child abuse] okay? Is our definition in need of changing?" asked Palm. "The way we report child abuse, could we enhance it? Should we be doing investigations differently? These are fundamental questions, and kids were potentially paying the consequence of our inaction on them long before we knew about Penn State."
She said that advocates have been urging the legislature to create a task force since April. Senator Ward has been drafting her bill since August.
Both Palm and Hollander denounced child protection advocate Richard Wexler's claim that 75% of child abuse reports are false.
Palm said that there's an important difference between a child abuse report being unsubstantiated by authorities and being totally unfounded.
"I would challenge folks who aren't comfortable with understanding this to talk to the school nurse, who makes a report about a child who has a broken arm, or has serious welts on their body, but because the definition of child abuse is such a high threshold, that becomes an unsubstantiated report," said Palm.
Palm said that 15 percent of child abuse investigations are substantiated in Pennsylvania, but that does not mean that the other 85 percent of cases were not child abuse.