Bill to strengthen definition of child abuse awaits governor’s signature
The most significant piece of child protection legislation to make it through the General Assembly in recent memory is on its way to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.
House Bill 726, sponsored by Rep. Scott Petri (R-Bucks), defines what constitutes child abuse in Pennsylvania, providing the basis on which all future child abuse cases will be judged. The bill received unanimous approval in the House today on concurrence following Senate passage of the bill last week.
“Pennsylvania is known nationally as a statistical outlier for the number of children who are determined to be victims of child abuse,” said Petri. “In 2011, about one in 1,000 Pennsylvania children were deemed victims of child abuse. Nationally, that number was about nine children per 1,000. Instead of demonstrating that Pennsylvania children are safe and protected, these numbers were indicative of a weak definition of child abuse with an extremely high threshold and unclear guidelines that put children at risk of harm – even death. For years, children and youth caseworkers, who do incredible jobs, have been forced to leave children in situations that were unsafe because the power of the law was not on the side of the child.
“My bill clearly defines child abuse, giving police officers, medical professionals, teachers, childcare workers and others who are mandated to report suspected abuse, and individuals who witness suspected abuse, specific criteria on which to base their claim,” said Petri. “The definition provided in Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law does not cover many activities that most people would consider abusive and, regrettably, children have died because the law was not sufficient to protect them.
“I initiated this change in the state’s definition of child abuse following the 2003 beating death of 3-year-old Portia Bennett of Philadelphia,” said Petri. “In the time that it has taken to get this law passed, more than 500 abused Pennsylvania children have died from their injuries. In many communities, that is the population of an entire elementary school.
“No child should die in this manner,” said Petri. “I am confident that the definitions clearly outlined in this new law will provide the tools necessary to establish solid cases of abuse that will protect children.”
House Bill 726 is among at least 19 child protection bills recommended by the Task Force on Child Protection following the Sandusky child sex abuse case. The governor is expected to sign the bill into law this week.