Todd Lloyd MSW, Child Welfare Director, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children
The Sandusky scandal at Penn State challenged us as a nation to think about our individual and collective responsibility to protect children from harm. For Pennsylvania, the high profile sex abuse case opened up an opportunity that the legislature seized in the 2013-14 session – to revisit child protection laws created over half a century ago.
For PA Partnerships for Children, the overhaul of our child protection laws initially felt like a diversion from our advocacy agenda for 2013-14, which was primarily focused on foster care permanency and well-being issues. However, we quickly recognized the political opportunity to improve our child protection laws and decided to jump in feet first to help ensure any new laws would better protect kids and not undo any positive aspects of our system.
The most important developments in overhauling our laws are:
We clarified what child abuse is and who commits it – Our state’s narrow definitions of child abuse and perpetrators made our laws difficult to apply in practice. Some strongly believed our law was jeopardizing the safety of children because it hindered access to protective services.
We resisted the temptation to legislate universal mandatory reporting – one of the major subjects of debate was whether Pennsylvania should move toward a universal mandatory reporting system in which every adult is bound by law to report suspected child abuse. With help from SPARC we learned that universal mandatory reporting does not result in increased substantiated reports of abuse, and in fact, that some states with long standing mandatory reporting laws were considering scaling them back to better ensure mandated reporters are trained and held accountable.
We expanded the list of mandated reporters – PA needed to consider whether our current statute named all of the necessary individuals representing all the right institutions as mandated reporters. In the end, we increased responsibility for reporting to ensure that those with the most contact with children could play a role in sounding an alarm when needed.
We changed problematic “chain of command” reporting – New PA law requires those who suspect abuse and neglect to report directly to the state hotline as well as to their administrators, ensuring that kids don’t fall through the cracks because those at the top don’t follow through.
We require employer sponsored training and education – By placing training and education requirements related to mandatory reporting on employers, we hope to spread responsibility for awareness across the community, not only in the hands of the child protection system.
After a year of dialogue and debate, we can safely say our new child protection laws are not perfect, but definitely a large improvement over our previous statute. The Sandusky scandal provided a tremendous opportunity to address some major flaws with our child protection system that we had known about for years. With new laws on the books, we can now turn our focus toward ensuring effective implementation and advancing other public policy reforms that will help ensure children and families involved with the child welfare system receive the services and supports they need to thrive.