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Corbett signs bills on abuse

| Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, 12:08 a.m.
Pennsylvania on Wednesday began expanding its definition of child abuse and filling gaps in child protection laws that the Jerry Sandusky child sex-assault scandal exposed. Gov. Tom Corbett signed 10 bills mostly based on legislation that a state Task Force on Child Protection recommended.

Pennsylvania on Wednesday began expanding its definition of child abuse and filling gaps in child protection laws that the Jerry Sandusky child sex-assault scandal exposed.

Gov. Tom Corbett signed 10 bills mostly based on legislation that a state Task Force on Child Protection recommended. Corbett and others said expanding the list of people who investigators can consider “perpetrators” and lowering the threshold for what they consider abuse will allow agencies to protect more children.

“This allows us to indicate abuse when there's an unknown perpetrator,” said Jacki Hoover, assistant deputy director for Allegheny County's Office of Children, Youth and Families. “That's significant for victims.”

Corbett praised the bipartisan support for the five Senate and five House bills he signed.

“These are complex issues, and the General Assembly has been really effective in getting input from all sides of the issues,” said Ellen Kramer, legal director for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which pushed for changes in some of the proposals.

Some of the bills take effect on Jan. 1. The amended definitions of abuse and perpetrators don't take effect until the end of 2014.

“This is a really great first step. There are certainly more things to be done,” said Corbett spokeswoman Christine Cronkright, echoing the sentiment of several advocates.

Ten bills remain in the legislative pipeline, two of which involve those who must report suspected child abuse to authorities. One would make failure to report a felony in certain cases. One expands the list.

“Those are all ready to go. We just need to tweak some of the language as to who is a mandated reporter,” said Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery County, who proposed the changes. “I don't have any doubt they will pass.”

Expanding the list and punishing teachers and other professionals who don't report suspicions became a focus of debate after prosecutors accused Sandusky of abusing 10 boys over 15 years while working as an assistant football coach at Penn State University. Three former top administrators are awaiting trial on charges that include failing to report allegations against Sandusky, whom a jury sent to prison.

The bills that passed remove a requirement that agencies find “serious bodily injury” before they can consider an act child abuse. They also include as perpetrators those who fail to act to stop abuse.

The Coalition Against Domestic Violence pushed to exclude people who fail to stop abuse because they fear doing so will put their lives in danger. The laws contain a separate definition of people who fail to stop abuse but no exclusion. Kramer said that could allow judges or caseworkers to at least consider why a parent or caretaker did not report abuse.

“We need to keep the onus on the courts and Children and Youth (agencies),” Kramer said.

County agencies will be looking for some financial help to offset training on the new rules and potentially higher caseloads with the expanded definitions.

“This really requires further discussion with the counties and courts about what this means,” Hoover said.

Staff writer Adam Smeltz contributed. David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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