The Sandusky scandal at Penn State challenged us as a nation to think about our individual and collective responsibilities to protect children from harm. For Pennsylvania, the high-profile sex abuse case created an opportunity that the legislature seized in the 2013-14 session – to revisit child protection laws created more than a half century ago.
For Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, the overhaul of our child protection laws initially felt like a diversion from our advocacy agenda for 2013-14, which was primarily focused on foster care permanency and well-being issues. However, we quickly recognized the political opportunity to improve our child protection laws and decided to jump in feet first to help ensure any new laws would better protect kids and not undue any positive aspects of our system.
The most important developments in overhauling our laws were:
Clarifying what child abuse is and who commits it - How our state defined child abuse and perpetrators made our laws difficult to apply in practice. Some strongly believed our law was jeopardizing the safety of children because it was hindering access to protective services.
Resisting the temptation to legislate universal mandatory reporting - One of the major subjects of debate was whether Pennsylvania should move toward a universal mandatory reporting system in which every adult is bound by law to report suspected child abuse. With help from the State Policy Advocacy and Reform Center (SPARC) we learned that universal mandatory reporting does not result in increased substantiated reports of abuse, and in fact, some states with mandatory reporting laws were considering scaling them back to better ensure mandated reporters are trained and held accountable.
Expanding the list of mandated reporters - Pennsylvania needed to consider whether our current statute named all of the necessary individuals representing all the right institutions as mandated reporters. In the end, we increased responsibility for reporting to ensure those with the most contact with children could play a role in sounding an alarm when needed.
Changing problematic “chain of command” reporting - Our new state law requires those who suspect abuse and neglect to report directly to the state’s ChildLine hotline as well as to their administrators, ensuring kids don’t fall through the cracks because those at the top failed to follow through.
Requiring employer sponsored training and education - By placing training and education requirements on employers related to mandatory reporting, we hope to spread responsibility for awareness across the community, not only in the hands of the child protection system.
Simply put, the Sandusky scandal provided an opportunity to address some longstanding flaws with our child protection system. With new laws on the books, we can now turn our focus toward ensuring effective implementation and advancing other public policy reforms that will help ensure children and families involved with the child welfare system receive the services and supports they need to thrive.
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