Pennsylvania Child Abuse Reports Increase

Child abuse reports increase after new laws took effect Jan. 1

The new year brought new laws aimed at improving child abuse prevention and detection in Pennsylvania.

Higher penaltys for Child Abusee
Lisa Stevens, executive director of Schuylkill County Children & Youth Services

A total of 23 new laws went into effect as a result of recommendations by the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Prevention following the Jerry Sandusky scandal in 2011. Implementation of the new laws have been staggered over the last couple months, but most went into effect Jan. 1.

“We have been very busy at the beginning of the year. More so than at this time last year,” Lisa Stevens, executive director of Schuylkill County Children & Youth Services, said Wednesday.

Among the major changes are the state’s definition of child abuse and who are considered mandatory reports and alleged perpetrators of abuse.

Bodily abuse was previously defined as “severe pain” and “serious impairment.” It is now legally characterized as causing “substantial pain.” The lower threshold for abuse has brought more cases to the Children & Youth staff.

“Many of those calls that were law enforcement referrals are now abuse cases,” Stevens said.

As of Jan. 14, Stevens said the agency has 42 reports of suspected abuse and 46 reports of abuse since the start of the year. There are also 270 pending non-abuse cases.

“We certainly don’t want to discourage any calls, but with the mandated reporting expansion, we are seeing an influx of calls,” Stevens said.

Anyone who comes into contact with a child or is directly responsible for their care and supervision is considered a mandatory reporter. Those who file a case of suspected child abuse in good faith are now protected by law from employment discrimination.

“Another big group of people it affects is teachers and anyone employed in a school setting,” Heidi Eckert, child abuse supervisor at the Schuylkill Children & Youth, said.

Previously, they were not considered perpetrators of abuse. Any allegations had to go through an internal review at the school and then the case would be referred to law enforcement, she said. Criminal charges would then lead to the involvement of Children & Youth. That process was also referred to as “chain-of-command” reporting.

“That whole protocol has been eliminated,” Eckert said.

As a mandatory reporter, any suspicions of abuse must be reported to the state within 48 hours or that person may face legal repercussions.

The failure to report suspected child abuse now carries harsher penalties. A first offense is now a third-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison.

Child abuse can also be the result of a caretaker’s failure to act, and now includes things like preventing a sibling from injuring a child. The definition was broadened to include “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” failing to prevent injury.

“That’s a different way of thinking for us because those words can be interpreted differently,” Eckert said. “Until case law is set on those definitions, it is going to be interesting.”

The definition of an alleged perpetrator was also expanded to include anyone responsible for the welfare of a child. Before the new regulations, some people who did not live with the child could be prosecuted for assault, but could not be put onto the state child abuse registry.

Now, the county department has been involved in more custody cases as Children & Youth is required to provide the court with information it was previously not privileged.

“We had no idea how many custody cases were going on in Schuylkill County until these new laws,” Stevens said.

Stevens said her department has been providing information for about 40 to 50 cases a month. Before the new regulations, she said it was about four or five cases a month.

Clearance requirements have also expanded to include anyone working with children and need to be updated every 36 months. All mandatory reporters are required to have three hours of state-approved training and continuing education on detecting child abuse and reporting procedures.

New regulations were being planned for the last several years, but Stevens said the Sandusky case excelled implementation.

Sandusky, a former Penn State football coach, was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison after being convicted of 45 counts of sex abuse in June 2012.

While some county agencies with smaller staffs may be having a harder time with the influx of new cases, Stevens said her department was already planning to add employees.

“We have some additional positions in our budget we have not filled yet,” Stevens said.

Stevens said three additional case worker positions were included in this year’s budget. Due to an increase in cases, Stevens said the positions will likely be used for a screener, an abuse investigator and a non-abuse investigator.

The county department currently has eight general intake workers and five child abuse specialists. Stevens said the original plan was to fill those positions by April, but that may now be moved up.