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Leaders', Group Opinions Vary On Child Abuse Task Force Report

by on November 28, 2012 6:00 AM

The governor, a Pennsylvania state representative and interest group each weighed in on the report released on Tuesday by the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection – and one group is not too happy about it. 

The report called for sweeping reforms to laws that are currently in place regarding reporting child sexual abuse as well as upgrades to laws and procedures governing child protection, according to the Pa. state senate

A press conference was held in Harrisburg on Tuesday to announce the changes. It was led by the Task Force's chairman, Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler. 

"The Task Force's recommendations call for what is essentially a complete rewriting of the Child Protective Services Law – such as redefining and clarifying what constitutes child abuse itself, and expanding the list of those who are required to report child abuse to Pennsylvania's ChildLine," Heckler said.

"We also call for upgrading some crimes and creating several new offenses. We propose a transformation in the way information concerning child abuse is handled and maintained, the way in which crimes against children are investigated in parts of the state, and the way in which those with a responsibility for the well being of children are trained."

Gov. Tom Corbett lauded the 12-member task force's efforts, saying in a press release that he wants to "close the gap" that causes problems when it comes to reporting child abuse. 

"I want to thank the task force – especially the chairman, David Heckler – for leading such a comprehensive review of our child protective services laws and regulations,'' Corbett said.

"The task force's recommendations are an important step in putting the protection of Pennsylvania's children first. My staff and I will work with the legislature, law enforcement agencies and advocates to review each recommendation in detail.

"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.

"If we want to continue to protect Pennsylvania's children from abuse and neglect, we must close the gaps that exist between state and local government, law enforcement, and health and child welfare agencies," Corbett said.

Pa. Rep. Frank Dermody, who was vocal earlier this fall regarding the $60 million fine Penn State was dealt by the NCAA as part of its sanctions, said he was pleased with the report via a press release. 

Dermody said the Pa. House of Representatives now needs to "set aside partisanship to speed up action" when it comes to passing child protection legislation. He alluded to the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case as one that could have been expedited had the right laws been in place to protect the victims. 

"Part of the tragedy of recent child abuse scandals is how long it took to bring abusers to justice. We ought to work in a bipartisan way in 2013 to improve state laws sooner rather than later," Dermody said.

According to the press release, Dermody asked the Corbett administration to take immediate steps to improve the responsiveness of the state's child abuse reporting hotline, ChildLine, by adding more intake caseworkers. He said that in 2011, more than eight percent of calls were dropped before being answered and other callers are placed on hold for long periods.

"The ChildLine staff simply is stretched too thin to handle the call volume," Dermody said. "When a concerned citizen picks up the phone to report child abuse, the least the state of Pennsylvania can do is answer the phone."

The toll-free number for Pennsylvania's ChildLine is 1-800-932-0313.

Dermody prosecuted child abuse cases in Allegheny County in the 1980s and applauded the task force's recommendation to improve state and county support of evidence-based child abuse prevention programs, the press release said. 

"So much heartache and misery could be avoided by improving the tools we use to prevent this crime from occurring in the first place.

"The General Assembly established this task force last December and charged it with providing us a roadmap for improving state laws and procedures to better protect children," Dermody said. "We will take a good look at the full report and consider each recommendation, but it is clear that the panel performed very well and produced a thoughtful document."

In Bryn Mawr Pa., however, the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse said its members were displeased with the recommendations made in the task force's report. 

"While we appreciate the work the task force has done, and support many of their recommendations, we are profoundly disappointed in the fact that the task force failed to address any of the most powerful tools available to protect children from sexual abuse," FACSA said via a press release.

"We believe that the elimination of statute of limitations both criminally and civilly, as well as the creation of a two year window which suspends civil statute of limitations for prior victims of sex abuse, would provide meaningful, effective, decisive protection to children. These changes were recommended in two grand jury reports in Pennsylvania and have been proposed in various bills for the past 7 years. Other states have used these reforms successfully to identify predators and make children safer.

"By failing to address these obvious remedies, the task force has instead settled for a 'business as usual' approach with the potential for only minimal positive impact. The fact that the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference issued a statement in support of the work of the task force demonstrates the weakness of its recommendations. The Catholic Conference has spent millions of dollars fighting actual reform for years, choosing to protect its priests and bishops rather than the children they abused.

"FACSA will continue to fight for SOL reform in Pennsylvania and beyond until children are protected and predators are exposed. Our Commonwealth's children are being engulfed in a firestorm of sex abuse, and our legislative leaders are reaching for squirt guns. Instead, we need them to reach for as many fire hoses as possible, as soon as possible, if we want to have an impact on the inferno of child sex abuse in Pennsylvania."

Heckler said on Tuesday that the Task Force's recommendations will need to be introduced in numerous bills for the General Assembly to consider, and that many issues will require additional public hearings, according to the state senate.

"The Task Force took a comprehensive look at Pennsylvania's current laws governing child protection," he said. "Strengthening these laws must be done as soon as possible, but we should recognize that it cannot be done overnight," Heckler said.

Laura Nichols is a news reporter and @LC_Nichols on Twitter.
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