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Commission urges overhaul for Pa. child abuse laws

Sandusky arrest led to task force

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania should enact sweeping changes to its child abuse laws, a legislative commission concluded Tuesday after a year of study prompted by Jerry Sandusky’s arrest on molestation charges.

The Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection recommended rewriting state law, redefining what constitutes child abuse, and expanding the list of people who are required to report suspected abuse.

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‘‘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,’’ said David Heckler, the Bucks County district attorney who chaired the panel.

The recommendations will probably require a set of as-yet-unwritten bills for the Legislature to consider when it convenes in January.

‘‘Strengthening these laws must be done as soon as possible, but we should recognize that it cannot be done overnight,’’ Heckler said.

The Republican leader in the state Senate praised the report and said he expected some bills would move to the governor early next year.

‘‘We are fully prepared to commit the time and effort necessary to make our state safer for children,’’ said majority leader Dominic Pileggi.

Sandusky, a 68-year-old former Penn State assistant football coach, is serving a 30- to 60-year state prison sentence after being convicted this summer of 45 counts of sexual abuse of 10 boys. He maintains his innocence and is pursuing appeals.

Heckler acknowledged that the Sandusky and Roman Catholic priest scandals provided the impetus for the creation of the task force but said the panel took a wider view.

‘‘What we did here is not a knee-jerk reaction to anything. It is a seizing of the opportunity to look at the whole system’’ and gather advice from specialists, he said.

One of its proposals, to increase the use of investigative teams from various fields for child abuse cases, may have prevented additional victims after Sandusky’s acts drew the attention of police and child welfare workers more than a decade before his arrest, Heckler said.

‘‘I firmly believe if there had been a multidisciplinary team in Centre County in the late ’90s and early 2000s, that you would have heard about Jerry Sandusky then,’’ he said.

Dr. Cindy W. Christian, a child-abuse pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, said the proposed expansion of the definition of child abuse in Pennsylvania is central to the recommendations.

The present definition ‘‘is so narrowly defined that what is child abuse in every other state in this country is not necessarily child abuse in Pennsylvania,’’ said Christian, a task force member.

Under current law, children have to show they experienced severe pain in order to substantiate abuse claims. The task force said that requirement should be eliminated and a lower bar established.

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