State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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Abuse hotline, legal definitions, and investigative teams the focus of child protection task force

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Nov 27, 2012 3:57 PM

The panel tasked with reviewing the state’s laws regarding child abuse has issued to the governor and the Legislature its final report, spanning the state’s laws on child abuse and its institutions’ responses.

The 11-member body was reluctant to single out any handful of their recommendations as highest priority, preferring instead that they be considered as “pieces of a puzzle,” said one member, Dr. Cindy Christian, a Philadelphia-area pediatrician specializing in child abuse.

The group was created in the months after the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal came to light, and another panel member said some recommendations are in direct response to the school’s debacle. Attorney Jason Kutulakis noted the task force’s proposal to change to the law allowing reports of child abuse within an institution to go up the chain of command.

“We saw that at Penn State. There was supposed to be the report up through the designated individual, in this case, Graham Spanier,” said Kutulakis, noting the school’s ex-president, who is contesting charges filed against him earlier this November that he allegedly stymied prosecutors’ investigation into Sandusky. “This has been changed in these amendments to require the person, the individual, who discovers the abuse to report it immediately to Childline.”

The panel recommends that after calling Childline, the state’s child abuse hotline, mandatory reporters should also be required to tell their supervisors at the institution, to make it even less likely the abuse report is buried. Had such requirements been in place at Penn State, Kutulakis said, former graduate assistant Mike McQueary and a school janitor who witnessed abuse by Sandusky would have been required to file a report with the state.

The report also spills no small amount of ink on one of the state’s frontline responses to child abuse – Childline, the 24/7 child abuse hotline, which has long frustrated advocates and doctors who point to long hold times and a high number of dropped calls.

The law creating Childline requires it to employ only full-time workers. Those slots are hard to fill – harder still because of the sometimes mandatory overtime that comes with the job. So the panel is suggesting the understaffed hotline be allowed to hire part-time employees.

“There are many former and active child protective services workers who have a tremendous amount of experience who could staff – it doesn’t have to physically be at Childline – who could help staff this and provide additional coverage,” said Rachel Berger, another task force member and a Pittsburgh-area pediatrician specializing in child abuse.

She characterized Childline’s methods of relaying reports to the police and other agencies as a “game of telephone,” and said the office should adopt more efficient ways of taking and sharing information.

The panel also recommends erasing the 15-month lifespan of child abuse reports, which its members say limits advocates’ ability to track both victims and perpetrators.

Other suggested reforms include expanding the legal definitions of child abuse, child abusers, and those who are required to report such abuse. The panel advises increasing the penalties for possessing child pornography. It is encouraging more open communication between pediatricians and child protective service offices by proposing that the two groups be able to share information without notifying a child’s parents. Blair County prosecutor Jackie Bernard, another panel member, said one recommendation that counties can begin implementing right away is using multidisciplinary teams to investigate child abuse cases.

The state Senate Majority Leader acknowledged in a statement that some recommendations will take longer to implement, but he said he hopes legislation to put some of them in place goes to the governor’s desk “early in 2013.”

Gov. Corbett said in a statement that his administration would “review each recommendation in detail.”

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