Sixteen new pieces of legislation are being introduced in the Pennsylvania State Senate this week in an effort to update and improve the state's child abuse laws.
The bills, sponsored by a bipartisan mix of 24 senators, come as a response to recommendations made by the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection in its November 30th report.
State Sen. Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) said the effort was born out of a 2011 Senate Aging and Youth Committee meeting where members were informed that current laws are vague, confusing and focus on perpetrators rather than victims.
The package of bills would changes existing laws through:
- Updates to the definition of “child abuse” (SB 20)
- Expanding the list of mandatory reporters (SB 21)
- Increasing the penalty for failure to report child abuse (SB 22)
- Expanding the definition of “perpetrators” to include employees or volunteers who have direct regular contact with children (SB 23)
- Creating a state database to hold information on child abuse reports (SB 24)
- Creating a three digit, statewide phone number for reporting child abuse similar to 911 (SB 26)
- Providing whistleblower protection for child abuse reporting (SB 33)
State Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny) said his legislation, SB 31, requires all instances of child abuse to be investigated. Current law only requires an investigation if abuse leads to serious bodily injury or if it is reported by police or a county welfare official.
“We have a public and ethical responsibility to protect our children and ensure their safety in our schools,” Fontana said. “It doesn’t matter who is suspected of child abuse; each case should be handled the same.”
Fontana said he is happy to see the current push for new child protection laws. He originally introduced his bill in 2005.
Dave Heckler, chair of the PA Task Force on Child Protection, said the legislative package captures “more than a good stab” of what was recommended.
He said changes need to be made in the way children are treated by the justice system.
“Every piece of this legislation, every interaction between government or private individuals and children needs to be looked at from the standpoint, ‘If I were the child, what would advance my interests?'”
Heckler said despite recent interest in the subject, the task force didn’t address the statute of limitations because it was focused on preventing and prosecuting child abuse that is happening now.
He said the longer someone waits to press charges or bring abuse to light, the harder it is to prove wrongdoing.
Ward said they’re expecting the bills to make their way through the legislature quickly with movement expected by June.