Pennsylvania took an important step when more than 20 pieces of legislation, designed to protect the commonwealth’s children from abuse, officially became law this year.
The state had, and still has, a long way to go, but these new laws — aimed primarily at mandatory reporting — are a sign of significant and necessary change.
According to government statistics, the number of investigations into potential child abuse is 40 per 1,000 children nationally. In Pennsylvania, that number is 10 per 1,000. Additionally, the number of documented cases of child abuse nationally is 10 per 1,000 incidents reported, whereas in Pennsylvania it is 1 per 1,000.
The new regulations hopefully bring Pennsylvania closer to the national average by modernizing the reporting process, properly educating all reporters and precisely defining who is a mandatory reporter and alleged perpetrator. They are borne from the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal and could be, if implemented correctly, the lasting legacy of that tragic case.
“Sandusky was the tipping point, but Pennsylvania’s law/practices really left too many children unprotected from serious physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect for years,” Cathleen Palm, founder of The Center for Children’s Justice in Berks County, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The new laws are designed to eliminate “chain-of-command reporting,” requiring specific individuals — a lengthy list including doctors, school employees, clergy, public library employees and foster parents — to report suspected abuse to ChildLine, a real-time state hotline which shares necessary information with child services and law enforcement personnel.
Communicating potential abuse to a supervisor — what Joe Paterno did in the Sandusky case — is not enough under these new provisions.
More individuals now fall under the “mandatory reporter” category, a positive step. The real indicator of the success will be measured by the number of prosecutions or penalties which result from a failure to appropriately report suspected abuse.
In recent years, the Valley has had specific instances which would fall under this new umbrella.
There have been several occurrences of inappropriate social media engagement between substitutes, aides and students in our schools with inconsistent legal ramifications. High-ranking school officials reportedly refused to view a student’s cell phone despite pleas they were threatened.
These fell into “gray areas” prior implementation of the new laws. They no longer will. How similar failures by mandatory reporters are managed moving forward will underscore the effectiveness of this legislation.