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December 28, 2013

Ten new laws bolster battle of child abuse

Valley expert: More work ahead

NORTHUMBERLAND — The 10 bills Gov. Corbett signed this month into laws that refine definitions of child abuse represent a positive step for Pennsylvania, a Valley physician says.

One law expands the definition of who is considered a potential child abuser; another lowers the threshold for the kind of injury or pain that is considered child abuse. A third lowers the threshold for the kind of injury to a child that could trigger child welfare workers to summon a medical examiner.

Dr. Pat Bruno, of the Children’s Advocacy Center, in Northumberland, says the laws are important because the high thresholds in Pennsylvania prevented many cases from being classified as child abuse.

“(Pennsylvania) was very low in terms of cases investigated and cases substantiated,” he said. “The laws weren’t as child-centered as they could’ve been. ... We almost lost a lot of money (in grant and research funds) because our definitions were so narrow.”

Low numbers also provided inaccurate information for lawmakers, who were trying to address the problems without having a full picture of the situation, Bruno said.

“These are our statistics that we depend upon,” Bruno said, “and that our legislators depend upon.”

Now those definitions and thresholds more accurately reflect the broader picture, but there are still issues legislators missed, Bruno said.

“I’m not ready to celebrate just yet,” he said.

Lawmakers failed to address the “religious exemption” in child abuse law, which allows forgoing medical treatment for children because of religious beliefs, Bruno said.

“That,” he said, “needs to be addressed.”

Legislators must also revisit proposals specifying that drunken driving with a child in the vehicle or dealing drugs with a child present is child abuse.

“I think we need to have a fierce commitment going forward to make this a shared community responsibility,” he said.

And while Bruno noted that the Sandusky scandal at Penn State certainly put the state’s child-abuse issues on the national radar, the recent changes to laws weren’t necessarily a direct result of the former assistant football coach’s case, Bruno said.

“These were a long time coming,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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