Penn State justifies child-abuse reforms

Former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested and arraigned Wednesday on new sex abuse charges brought by two new accusers.
Former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested and arraigned Wednesday on new sex abuse charges brought by two new accusers. (Centre County Correctional Facility, via AP)
Posted: December 08, 2011

Pennsylvania's laws and policies simply don't go far enough to protect children from the sort of abuse that allegedly took place at Penn State. That's why we're among the many advocates, experts, and organizations that have been calling for the creation of a state child protection and accountability task force to review and recommend changes in the way the state deals with child abuse.

We first urged Gov. Corbett and state legislators to form such a body in April, and we renewed the call before a state Senate committee in August. We envision a commission that brings representatives of the administration and the legislature together with experts to examine and make timely recommendations about the commonwealth's child protection efforts. The task force should consider such issues as:

Defining child abuse.

Strengthening and clarifying mandatory reporting laws.

Improving the state child-abuse hotline, ChildLine.

Simplifying the multiple paths to investigation and services for children who are abused or at risk.

Increasing accountability and transparency in Pennsylvania's child protection system.

Substantiating child abuse is not easy in this state, which is a statistical outlier in this area. The commonwealth investigates only 8.3 abuse cases per 1,000 children, compared with a national average of 40.3 per 1,000. And it substantiates only 1.4 cases of abuse per 1,000 children, compared with 9.3 per 1,000 nationally. Why?

The state's approach to child neglect is often cited to explain the discrepancy. Pennsylvania distinguishes between child protective services and general protective services, with the latter applying to cases generally considered to involve "nonserious injury or neglect" - e.g., inadequate shelter, truancy, inappropriate discipline, abandonment, and other problems that threaten a child's healthy growth and development but are not defined as abuse.

However, a growing body of research and reports suggests a gap between what the state's children are experiencing and what is officially determined to be abuse under state law. That means Pennsylvania's child protection system could be full of cracks that vulnerable children are slipping through.

Acknowledging these cracks and the children who fall through them is far from an exercise in niggling over statistics or ascribing labels. Nor should it be interpreted as a push for the removal of more children from their homes for placement in foster care - which, like other adverse childhood experiences, can lead to a lifetime of negative consequences.

Rather, this is an opportunity to critically examine the core elements of our child welfare system and to ensure that our laws and practices are sufficiently focused on children, child safety, and the prevention of child abuse.

As the nation has been tragically reminded too many times, reports of child abuse and investigations by child protection agencies have not always been enough to stop abuse. The Penn State case underscores the need for an objective review of the state's core child protection laws and practices, including its definition of child abuse. Vulnerable children have already waited too long.


Barbara Clark is executive director of Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA) in Bucks County. Dr. Maria D. McColgan is director of the Child Protection Program at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.

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