Committee Explores Changes to State Definition of Child Abuse

Harrisburg – The Senate Aging and Youth Committee, chaired by Sen. Kim Ward (R-39), held a public hearing Tuesday in Pittsburgh to explore possible changes to the state’s definition of child abuse and the Commonwealth’s Child Protective Services system.

The hearing was held at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, one of the first three hospitals in nation that dealt with child abuse, and featured several of the hospital’s renowned experts on the issue, as well as officials from the state Department of Public Welfare and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The panel heard from doctors on the front line of determining child abuse: Dr. Janet Endress Squires, who heads the Child Advocacy Center at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh; Dr. Rachel Berger, of the center’s Child Protection Team; and Dr. Mary Carrasco, director of A Child’s Place at Mercy at Pittsburgh Mercy Health System.

There were 24,615 child abuse incidents reported in Pennsylvania in 2010, but less than 15 percent could be substantiated, despite clear evidence and injuries. One shortcoming that testifiers noted in current Pennsylvania law was the requirement that a perpetrator be identified before an injury can be deemed a result of child abuse.

“We need to update the definition so that the abuse is recorded regardless of whether a perpetrator can be identified. Medical professionals can tell when a child inflicted with multiple bruises and broken bones was abused, whether the perpetrator is known or not, and that should be recorded,” said Ward.

Another change experts advocate is dropping the requirement that doctors determine that injuries inflicted on a child caused “severe pain” before the case can be handled as child abuse.

“The law should be amended to define abuse without relying on an arbitrary threshold such as ‘severe pain.’ That is difficult to precisely determine, and as a result too many cases of abuse go unrecorded.” said Ward.

In addition to discussing laws regarding child abuse, DPW updated the committee on the staffing concerns at Childline, the 24-hour hotline that all of the state’s mandatory child abuse reporters must contact to report suspected child abuse.

The hearing was a follow-up to an August 26th hearing which featured district attorneys, social workers, county officials and advocates. Senator Ward will incorporate comments made at both hearings and draft legislation to amend the law.  The intent is to consider this legislation at a Senate Aging and Youth Committee meeting this fall.

Contact:  Tom Aikens