UPDATE, December 18, 2:50 p.m.: Pennsylvania Gov. Corbett signed HB 726, and nine related bills, Wednesday morning. Gov. Corbett said in a statement, “Enacting stronger child protection laws is one of those important moments when we come together and stand up for those who have suffered in silence and ensure that justice is served.”
Pennsylvania has long lagged far behind national standards in child abuse laws, a situation that was largely ignored by legislators until the arrest of former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky in November 2011.
Last summer, Sandusky was convicted of 45 charges of abusing ten boys, and the failures of Pennsylvania law were in the spotlight once again.
An analysis conducted by the Patriot-News following the verdicts concluded that the state’s child abuse laws have not been significantly updated since the 1970s. The situation was so bad that for years, Pennsylvania was the only state in the country not in compliance with federal child abuse laws. Pennsylvania was also the last state to allow young victims of abuse to testify against their abusers via video conference and to allow expert witnesses to educate juries about typical victim behavior, such as delayed reporting of abuse.
The most significant of many failures of law, though, has been the state’s narrow definition of child abuse. Under current law, advocates and legislators say, physical attacks have to result in “severe pain,” or impairment of a major bodily function or disfigurement to be classified as child abuse.
Critics say the pain threshold is too subjective and the physical abuse threshold too high.
“If you intentionally took a cigarette and burned a child, that would not be child abuse [under current law],” said Rep. Scott Petri (R-Bucks), sponsor of HB 726, the bill designed to redefine child abuse in Pennsylvania.
“If you locked a child in a closet for a long period of time, that would not be child abuse because it doesn’t meet the threshold. If you have the means to feed a child, but you choose not to feed them for a substantial period of time, that is not child abuse currently,” said Petri. “All of those items would be child abuse under the new definition.”
Petri says his bill draws a “bright line” between corporal punishment and child abuse. It also contains “per se” provisions that will automatically classify sexual assault as child abuse.
Petri adds that while researching problems with current law, he spoke with pediatricians who told him that they would see the same child come to their office with broken bones and suspect abuse, but an investigation would find the report unsubstantiated. After a while, they wouldn’t report their suspicions, expecting nothing would happen.
The data supports such anecdotes. Pennsylvania has long been a “statistical outlier” in the investigation and determination of child abuse, consistently ranking lowest in the country in substantiated child abuse rates. In 2010, the substantiation rate was 1.3 per 1,000 children, while the national average was 9.2 per 1,000 children, according to the Protect Our Children Committee (POCC), a state advocacy organization.
As such, HB 726 is the bedrock of a package intended to make “sweeping” changes to Pennsylvania law. He says the governor is “anxious” to receive his bill, and expects it to be signed before year’s end.
If it is signed, it will be the first of more than a dozen bills expected to be signed into law that came out of the post-Sandusky evaluation.
The implementation date, however, is December 31, 2014. The delay concerns advocates like Cathleen Palm, longtime child advocate and co-founder of POCC.
“Are we on course for a bit of chaos?” asked Palm. “If you start to train people on the reporting provisions, and reinforce you have a responsibility to report, isn’t the definition part of how you teach people to report?”
“We want to make sure we need to give all the children and youth workers time to be educated in the bill,” Petri told RH Reality Check.
An associated bill will update which perpetrators will be classified as child abusers in Pennsylvania. (Previously, a criminal conviction did not necessarily mean classification and inclusion in the state database.)
Sara Ganim, the reporter who broke the Penn State story, noted that under old state law—that is, current Pennsylvania law, until the new legislation is implemented—even Jerry Sandusky would not necessarily be classified as a child abuser.
Rep. Petri echoes advocates when he says that the need for child abuse law reform has been obvious for many years, but it took the publicity from the Sandusky case to force attention on the issue.
The neglect may seem out-of-place in a state with so-called conservative, family-values run by a “pro-life” governor, but Petri says it reflects some of the deeply ingrained biases held by the (mostly male, white, and relatively affluent) lawmakers in Harrisburg.
“I will tell you that in the early years, when I would bring it up with some of my colleagues, you would get a response like, ‘That only happens in places like Philadelphia,’” he said.
ChildLine, Pennsylvania’s child abuse hotline, received an all-time high of 26,664 calls reporting suspected child abuse in 2012, with substantiated claims coming in from all 67 counties, according to a state report. Sexual abuse was involved in 54 percent of all substantiated claims.
The same year, explained the report, 33 children died from abuse.