HARRISBURG - Six bills designed to strengthen child abuse laws in Pennsylvania in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky and Catholic clergy molestation scandals won the unanimous approval of state senators Wednesday, as lawmakers pursue the first broad update to the laws in nearly two decades.
The bills approved by the Senate would set broader rules for who can be considered a perpetrator of child abuse and a clearer list of who must report a case of suspected child abuse to authorities.
One bill would increase the punishment for people found guilty of covering up child abuse while another bill would require medical professionals to report a case of suspected child abuse immediately to the county child welfare agency, while requiring the agency to disclose certain information to certain medical professionals.
Yet another bill would ensure that the identity of an attacker does not need to be determined before a case of child abuse is included in the state's official statistics. It addresses a persistent complaint by child welfare advocates who say that that requirement has kept the state's official statistics on cases of child abuse artificially low.
"These are all incredibly important bills to stemming the scourge of child abuse in our state. ... I am encouraged for Pennsylvania that today we take a very important first step forward," said Senate Aging and Youth Committee Chairman Bob Mensch, R-Montgomery.
The bills go to the House, while more bills on the subject of strengthening the state's often-criticized laws designed to stop child abuse were being considered by each chamber. A task force created by the Legislature issued detailed recommendations late last year, providing a blueprint for the bills.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said he expects a final package of child-abuse legislation to be on Gov. Tom Corbett's desk by Thanksgiving.
Cathleen Palm, co-founder of the Protect Our Children Committee, also applauded the passage of the bills as a good, first step.
However, she said one crucial bill remains in the Senate. That bill would address another longstanding complaint of child welfare advocates by lowering the threshold for the kind of injury or pain that is considered child abuse.
That threshold for serious injury and severe pain has allowed children to be abused over and over, Palm said.
Expanding the definition of a perpetrator of child abuse will help Pennsylvania to get a better sense of how big a problem child abuse is in the state, Palm said.
"The problem has been that it artificially suggested that Pennsylvania is a healthier state and place for kids to live because we don't capture things that other states would capture as child abuse," Palm said.
Data from 2011 showed that 1.2 per 1,000 Pennsylvania children were victims of child abuse, compared with 9.1 per 1,000 children nationally, Palm said.
The new definition would include relatives who do not live with the child and ex-girlfriends, ex-boyfriends and ex-spouses of a parent. It will also ensure that more people are reported to a confidential listing of people investigated for child abuse that is consulted by schools and day care centers when hiring new employees, Palm said.