Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection’s ‘common sense’ draws praise from advocacy groups

A state-appointed task force that spent the past year studying child protection laws generally got rave reviews from advocacy groups for the far-reaching recommendations contained in its 400-plus-page report.

The Task Force on Child Protection issued its final report Tuesday based on testimony from experts at 11 public hearings.

Pennsylvania Task Force Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler holds up a copy of a report from the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection during a news conference Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012 at the capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. Pennsylvania should enact “sweeping” changes to state child abuse laws, the legislative commission concluded Tuesday after a year of study prompted by Jerry Sandusky’s arrest on child molestation charges. The Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection’s recommendations include rewriting state law, redefining what constitutes child abuse and expanding the list of people who are required to report suspected abuse.(AP Photo/Bradley C Bower) The Associated Press

“I am just absolutely thrilled with the work they did. They really did succeed with putting the protection of kids above the convenience of adults,” said Angela Liddle, executive director of the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance. The agency trains employees who are required by law to report suspected child abuse.

Joan Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a Harrisburg-based children’s advocacy group, echoed the praise, saying it includes “common sense that can better protect kids.”

Dauphin County Chief Deputy District Attorney Sean McCormick noted, however, that it’s sad that it took a tragedy such as the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal “to sometimes get us focused.”

The task force recommended strengthening the penalty for mandated reporters who fail to report suspected child abuse from a third-degree misdemeanor to a second-degree misdemeanor. McCormick, who praised the report, had urged the task force to consider recommending that the penalty match the seriousness of the abuse.
I am thrilled with the work they did. They really did succeed with putting the protection of kids above the convenience of adults. — Angela Liddle

“It may not be what I asked them to do, but it’s a recognition that it needs to be a higher penalty,” he said.

Some fretted that the report doesn’t call for a state ombudsman to handle complaints when the system fails abused children. Others were disappointed that it skirted the issue of opening a window for past victims to report abuse after the statute of limitations has expired.

Liddle was disappointed that the task force recommended criminal sanctions for making false abuse reports. She said she understands the task force intended to discourage people from making reports for malicious reasons, but she fears the sanctions might cause people to hesitate to report abuse.

Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said the panel’s recommendation to change the law so teachers and school personnel report suspected abuse to ChildLine, the state’s child abuse hotline, rather than leave that reporting to their administrators, is a concern.

Administrators “would prefer to know everything going on in their school district and be informed about any incidents that take place in the school district,” Buckheit said.

The panel said this recommendation was intended to be a check and balance in the reporting system. Task force member Jason Kutulakis said it was made in response to the Sandusky case in which three Penn State administrators stand accused of not reporting child sex abuse allegations on campus, in addition to other charges.

Lawmakers and Gov. Tom Corbett pledged to get to work in early 2013 to move the recommendations through the legislative process.

“It’s my hope that we can take the work of the task force to help create a culture that promotes greater awareness, more accountability and better coordination,” Corbett said.

Several advocates talked about the need for a culture change in Pennsylvania when it comes to protecting children, and that likely will entail time and money. But Liddle said getting this roadmap from the task force is “is a great first step toward strengthening child protection in Pennsylvania.”

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