HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania should enact sweeping changes to its child abuse laws, a legislative commission concluded Tuesday after a year of study prompted by Jerry Sandusky’s arrest on molestation charges.
The Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection recommended rewriting state law, redefining what constitutes child abuse and expanding the list of people who are required to report suspected abuse.
“We propose a transformation in the way information concerning child abuse is handled and maintained, the way in which crimes against children are investigated in parts of the state, and the way in which those with a responsibility for the well-being of children are trained,” said David Heckler, the Bucks County district attorney who chaired the panel.
The recommendations are nonbinding and will probably require a set of as-yet-unwritten bills for the Legislature to consider when it convenes for a new two-year session in January.
“Strengthening these laws must be done as soon as possible, but we should recognize that it cannot be done overnight,” Heckler said.
The Republican leader in the state Senate praised the report and said he expected some bills would move to the governor early next year, saying there would be swift action in some cases.
“We are fully prepared to commit the time and effort necessary to make our state safer for children,” said Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi.
Sandusky, a 68-year-old former Penn State assistant football coach, is serving a 30- to 60-year state prison sentence after being convicted this summer of 45 counts of sexual abuse of 10 boys. He maintains his innocence and is pursuing appeals.
Heckler acknowledged that the Sandusky and Roman Catholic priest molestation scandals provided the impetus for the creation of the task force but said the panel took a wider view.
“What we did here is not a knee-jerk reaction to anything. It is a seizing of the opportunity to look at the whole system” and gather advice from experts, he said.
One of its proposals, to increase the use of investigative teams from various fields for child abuse cases, may have prevented additional victims after Sandusky’s acts drew the attention of police and child welfare workers more than a decade before his arrest, Heckler said.
“I firmly believe if there had been a multidisciplinary team in Centre County in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, that you would have heard about Jerry Sandusky then,” he said.
Dr. Cindy W. Christian, a child-abuse pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, said the proposed expansion of the definition of child abuse in Pennsylvania is central to the recommendations.
The present definition “is so narrowly defined that what is child abuse in every other state in this country is not necessarily child abuse in Pennsylvania,” said Christian, a task force member.
Under current law, children have to show they experienced severe pain in order to substantiate abuse claims. The 11-member task force said that requirement should be eliminated and a lower bar established.
Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan, who oversees the county’s children and youth task force, said the panel’s recommendation to lower the threshold is a step in the right direction that will allow Children and Youth Services to intervene when they haven’t been able to in the past.
Other highlights of the recommendations include enlarging the pool of people labeled as “perpetrators” under one state law. Task force members said such a change would get more children help from county services, help authorities identify more abusers, provide a more complete picture of the amount of abuse and likely lead to more criminal investigations.
Traci McDonald, deputy district attorney for the Washington County specialized victim investigation and prosecution unit and a member of the local task force, said the expanded definition would help overcome difficulties that her office faces when prosecuting a person who isn’t considered a caregiver.
“What we’re looking for is a comprehensive definition that provides for protection of children, not one that provides loopholes,” she said.
The state task force also suggested setting harsher penalties when people who are required to report abuse fail to do so.
Those who should be required to report suspected abuse also should be expanded to include college administrators and employees, coaches, lawyers and computer repair people who encounter images of child abuse, the committee said.
McDonald said the recommendation to broaden the list of those required to report abuse is a “phenomenal addition.”
The definition of sexual abuse also should be expanded to include sexually explicit conversations, the panel said.
Under the recommendations, more people would find themselves subject to the child endangerment criminal statute, including anyone who knowingly acts to prevent police or child welfare workers from learning of abuse in order to protect someone.
Task force member Jason Kutulakis, a Carlisle attorney, said he considered the most pressing recommendation to be the expanded use of multidisciplinary investigative teams and additional child advocacy centers, so that they are located within a 90-minute drive of any Pennsylvania child.
In Washington County, the local task force has already put into place a multidisciplinary team that meets to review physical and sexual abuse cases at least once a month. The team includes members from the district attorney’s office, CYS, law enforcement and the medical field.
McDonald said the multidisciplinary team was loosely structured when it began about a decade ago, but has since strengthened over time and is now wonderfully supported.
Irey Vaughan said the panel’s recommendation could lead to a state mandate that would help soldify the local team.
The county also already has a child advocacy center at Washington Hospital, which includes child-friendly rooms for examinations and forensic interviews.
Earlier this year, the local task force outlined its own recommendations for 14 areas of concern in CYS that it’s working to address, including reviewing the premature closing of cases, cutting down on issues related to discovery and full disclosure with the court and setting timelines on training sessions for documenting sexual abuse and conflict resolution.
The local task force will hold a nonpublic meeting at noon today in the courthouse annex building.
Three Penn State officials face related charges for their actions in response to complaints about Sandusky acting inappropriately with children in Penn State showers: the university’s former president Graham Spanier, former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz. Each has said he is innocent.
Staff writer Andy McNeil contributed to this report.