For one Carlisle lawyer, the Jerry Sandusky scandal wasn’t just a tragedy — it was the failure of an “antiquated” child protection law that is in need of a complete overhaul.
Jason Kutulakis, senior partner of Abom & Kutulakis LLP in Carlisle, joined 10 other attorneys, doctors, judges, social workers and education officials on the Pennsylvania Child Abuse Task Force last January. Their mission: suggest revamps to the child protection law so that perpetrators, such as Sandusky, will never again slip through the cracks and evade prosecution for so long.
“Usually what happens is a band aid approach, where one piece of legislation is passed at a time,” Kutulakis said. “This was a comprehensive overhaul which hasn’t been done in 20 years.”
The task force released a 445-page final report Tuesday, detailing their recommendations for state legislators to best address the current law.
Pennsylvania’s child abuse law, as it stands, defines child abuse through the narrow lens of physical violence, leaving those responsible for reporting suspected sexual abuse in a cloud of uncertainty.
“We have striven in our deliberations to recommend courses of action and legislative changes which will improve the protection of children in this Commonwealth, first and above all else,” said task force chairmain David W. Heckler in the opening pages of the report.
“While we didn’t provide specific language, we made recommendations for the use of child advocacy centers and the mandate to utilize multidisciplinary investigative teams in each county,” Kutulakis said.
The report recommends expanding definitions under the current law, including child abuse, mandated reporter and perpetrator, as well as establishing a multidisciplinary investigative team for every county in the state, granting immunity to all mandated reporters and requiring employees of colleges and universities be prosecuted for failure to report suspected child abuse.
“We recognize that the Sandusky and Philadelphia Archdiocese scandals have made child abuse prevention a hot topic for now,” Heckler said. “History tells us that once there has been a legislative response, there will be a tendency for the subject to then move to the back burner where it may languish for years. Children will be far better served if there is a continued attention and gradual evolution of our policies, and we hope that our proposals will make that more likely.”
Kutulakis said the task force based these recommendations off the testimony of professionals, experts, stakeholders and the parents of victimized children given over an 18-day period last January.
“They all provided their position on what was wrong with the system and provided some proposed solutions,” he said. “We (the task force) continued to meet beyond those days for countless hours to create this report.”
After 11 months of drafting, Pennsylvania legislators finally received the chance to read and respond to the task force’s report on Tuesday.
Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-199, applauded the task force’s efforts and said he thinks legislation to implement the recommendations will be widely supported in the state house.
“There is a lot of anticipation for this report and I believe my colleagues are going to be eager to move swiftly toward implementing the bulk of the recommendations,” he said. “Obviously the Sandusky case exposed a lot of deficiencies in the current laws, so I am eager to work with the governor toward implementing many of the recommendations from the task force so that we can protect victims more effectively and sooner.”
Sen. Pat Vance, R-31, said the report included many “good things.”
“I do like the fact that the person reporting (the abuse) is granted immunity,” she said. “That will hopefully encourage people to report suspected abuse without fear of losing their job.”
Vance said she has proposed legislation in the past aimed at implementing training programs for mandated reporters and expanding their protection from reprehension, but received no support from the state senate.
Ultimately, Vance said the bill’s recommendations, although beneficial, come at an unknown cost to the Commonwealth.
“Some of the definitions can be easily changed,” she said. “The investigative team is all good stuff, but we don’t know how much it’s going to cost.”
Kutulakis said the recommendations are both immediate and long-term, but well worth the investment.
“If this report is adopted in its entirety,” he said, “Pennsylvania will be a leader is child abuse prevention, investigation and prosecution. Placing a victim child’s needs above all else will revolutionize our system.”