MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania enacted its first new laws Wednesday in the Legislature’s wide-ranging response to the Jerry Sandusky and Roman Catholic clergy child sexual abuse scandals, a step that expands the nearly 20-year-old playbook for how caseworkers and investigators can handle reports of child abuse.
Among the bills signed by Gov. Tom Corbett during a morning ceremony at the Pennsylvania Child Resource Center in suburban Harrisburg are measures that expand the definition of who is considered a potential child abuser and lower the threshold for the kind of injury or pain that is considered child abuse.
Another lowers the threshold for the kind of injury to a child that could trigger child welfare workers to summon a medical examiner.
For too long, say child welfare advocates, Pennsylvania’s laws too narrowly defined the circumstances under which county caseworkers could step in to help a child they suspected of being physically or sexually abused. In some cases, the person who had hurt the child didn’t meet the law’s definition of an abuser, such as a coach or a relative who did not live with the child.
In other cases, the injuries to the child were not deemed to be serious enough to meet the law’s definition, said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Berks County-based Center for Children’s Justice.
“Too often, on the civil child welfare side, we’ve not been able to give children a pathway to services and we’ve not been able to protect them from perpetrators,” Palm said.
Those services include summoning a medical exam or counseling, or taking the child to a protective foster home.
Case workers who didn’t feel they could legally step in could refer the case to criminal investigators, but the threshold to prosecute child abuse is high and some cases never see an arrest, Palm said.
“Law enforcement, as great as law enforcement is, they look at the odds and ask, ‘Is this a case we can prosecute?’” Palm said.
The bills stemmed from recommendations produced 13 months ago by a panel of experts created by Corbett and lawmakers.
All told, Corbett signed 10 bills Wednesday, a move that he said comes after years of law enforcement officials and victim rights advocates trying to press policymakers to update Pennsylvania’s laws.
“We all know what the impetus was to really move this. We can’t walk away from that, and that’s an unfortunate, unfortunate circumstance in the history of our commonwealth,” Corbett said. “But it did get the glacier moving and it allowed the Legislature to really focus everybody’s attention on what we’re doing when it comes to reporting abuse, to handling abuse, to treating abuse and to bringing the criminal justice system into it. ”
Another bill signed by Corbett toughens the penalties for people caught producing, disseminating or viewing child pornography if the material depicts indecent contact with a child. Others order guidelines for child pornography cases and prevent the names of child victims from becoming public.
Bills still pending in the Legislature include measures that would increase the punishment for people found guilty of covering up child abuse and one that would expand the list of people required to report a suspicion of child abuse.
The latter bill was hung up on the issue of whether requiring lawyers to report such suspicion would trip over attorney-client privilege or the Supreme Court’s traditional regulation of the practice of law in Pennsylvania.