State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

On child abuse, lawmakers say they first must define the problem

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Jun 5, 2013 8:59 PM

State lawmakers are getting ready to move forward with proposals to expand the legal definition of child abuse in Pennsylvania in an effort to flag more incidents of suspected mistreatment.

The changes come at the suggestion of a task force convened last year to study child protection laws and issues.

Sean McCormack, Chief Deputy District Attorney of Dauphin County, was one of a panel of testifiers at a hearing before the Senate Aging and Youth Committee on proposed changes to the definition. At times, the session took on the feel of an essay workshop, with advocates providing line-by-line feedback on word choice in the bill.

Too often, McCormack said, the state's definition of child abuse becomes the subject of parsing exercises by well-meaning institutions.

"Whether it be hospitals or schools or religious organizations, lawyers are looking at these definitions and saying, 'In this situation you have to report, in this situation you don't have to report,'" said McCormack. "And if it's a situation in which you don't have to report, there is encouragement not to report."

"It's not just prosecuting - it's identifying a child who's been harmed so they can be provided services - medical services, social services, mental health services where appropriate," said attorney Jason Kutulakis, a member of the Task Force on Child Protection.

An armada of bills is moving through the House and Senate to address weaknesses in child protection laws, but lawmakers familiar with the issue say the legal definition of child abuse is the leader of the pack.

"This is the keystone," said Sen. Bob Mensch (R- Montgomery), chairman of the Senate Aging and Youth panel. "It's the first step in providing however many number of bills that come out... to be interrelated, interdependent."

But with a crowded legislative agenda before the traditional summer recess, the child protection issues aren't on the front burner. Mensch said it will probably be September before the full Senate votes on changing the child abuse definition.

The proposal in question in the Senate is sponsored by Sen. Leanna Washington (D-Philadelphia). No action has yet been scheduled on the measure.

A similar proposal in the House, sponsored by Rep. Scott Petri (R-Bucks), is slated for a committee vote next week. "All other legislation we consider regarding child protection will hinge on this definition," he said in a written statement.

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