Cumbersome legal definitions of child abuse can stymie doctors, nurses and caseworkers who might believe a child is in danger, according to advocates lobbying for changes to the state’s child welfare system.
Key bills to toughen penalties for child abuse and failure to report it could be on the governor’s desk before the end of the month. Those include a signature piece of legislation that advocates say will change the way child abuse is defined.
The key change involves essentially rewriting the law so almost anything that would be considered simple assault can now be described as child abuse. Under existing law, a doctor is often asked to determine if the child suffered “severe pain” as a result of the abuse, said Cathleen Palm, who leads the Protect Our Children Committee, an advocacy group that has been fighting for revamped child protection laws.
The state House has already approved the bill that would reform the definition of child abuse. A final Senate vote could take place next week.
The unwieldy definition can cripple abuse investigations before they begin as caseworkers and others in the child protection system are stymied, Palm said.
“(Child protection workers) are trained to screen based on what the law says,” Palm said.
The chilling effect is felt across the child protection system.
It matters to the nurse who calls to report that a child is covered in bruises only to see nothing happen, Palm said. It matters to the dispatcher who takes the call and determines that the injuries described by the nurse probably don’t meet the state standard for abuse, so the case is put on a backburner, Palm said.
It matters to doctors who treat children with suspicious injuries only to struggle to guess if the child suffered the type of “severe pain” required to call the acts abuse, she said. And, most of all, it matters to the children who listen to a caseworker tell their abusers the victims’ injuries don’t count as child abuse, Palm said.
Fifteen of the 31 families in which children died as a result of abuse in Pennsylvania in 2012 had been visited by child protective services in the 16 months before the victims were killed, according to Department of Public Welfare data.
“This isn’t about jacking our numbers up,” Palm said. “We are concerned because kids are not being provided pathways to services or investigations.”
Coming up with a workable new definition has not been easy. Early on, Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler, who chaired the state’s task force on child protection, worried that lawmakers would hedge on toughening the abuse language out of concerns about interfering with the right of parents to discipline their children. Those concerns were resolved, but physicians say there are other problems in some of the legislation.
The state is not eliminating the right of parents to claim that abuse is the result of religious beliefs, said Dr. Pat Bruno, a Northumberland County physician who specializes in recognizing and treating child abuse.
Just as badly, shaking a toddler would remain legal, Bruno said.
“First of all, the statement about ‘forcefully shaking a child if the child is under one year of age’ should be changed to ‘forcefully shaking an infant or a child.’ ” Bruno said. “There is no reason to ever shake an infant or a child. Indeed, there have been many reported cases of shaking causing the same damage to a child greater than one year of age as it does to a child less than one year of age.”
The move to revamp the definition of child abuse is one of 10 bills moving in the Senate. Others stiffen penalties for abuse or failing to report abuse and aim to improve communications between law enforcement and child protective services.
Advocates fret that those efforts may translate into a flood of reports of child abuse that only strain already overworked and burned out caseworkers.
Greater public awareness about child abuse has already translated into a dramatic increase in reports of suspected abuse, according to Department of Public Welfare data. The state’s ChildLine hotline received 26,664 reports of suspected abuse in 2012, a 9 percent increase over 2011.
Just 13 percent of reported child abuse cases in Pennsylvania, 3,565, were substantiated by caseworkers. It’s difficult to compare one state to another because not all states use the same terms. But in Nevada, for comparison, 26 percent of child abuse reports were substantiated by authorities, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“I know the Children and Youth caseworkers we deal with are going 120 percent,” said Paula Eppley-Newman, executive director of Beginnings Inc., a nonprofit focused on early childhood development in Johnstown. Beginnings just received $120,000 from the state to offer in-home parenting classes to families in a bid to prevent child abuse. The organization also runs the court-appointed special advocate program in Cambria County, which provides independent representatives to look exclusively after the interests of children in custody or similar family law disputes.
Palm said caseworkers and advocates are concerned about the effects of a new definition of abuse, coupled with more aggressive penalties for those who neglect to report it.
“Getting the laws passed is going to be the easy part,” Palm said. “We are nervous. That’s one of things we’re going to have to be attentive about.”