Dozens gathered at the Allegheny County Courthouse courtyard Friday in support of legislation that would increase penalties for those convicted of child abuse.
House Bill 2411, which is sitting in the Senate judiciary committee, would take endangering the welfare of a child from a first degree misdemeanor to a felony if the child is found to have a serious bodily injury or be near death. The offense would increase one degree if the child is under six years old.
According to Joanna Huss, community organizer for the group Ordinary Citizens for Child Justice, Pennsylvania has some of the weakest sentencing laws when it comes to child abuse perpetrators.
“There’s many, many instances across the state where you have lenient sentencing where you have a message that’s being really sent by judges and by the criminal justice system that society doesn’t really care when kids are killed or nearly killed, and that’s not right,” she said.
According to the Center of Children’s Justice, there were 175 child abuse fatalities or near-fatalities in Pennsylvania between 2008 and 2012. There were 90 similar cases in 2013.
“In most of these cases, the children were under 3-years-old,” Huss said. “They don’t have a voice, and they can’t speak for themselves. In addition, most of the perpetrators were moms. And that’s really scary.”
There is only one voting day remaining this year in the state Senate.
Huss and her group are also awaiting a report by the U.S. Attorney General examining the federal penalties perpetrators receive when they kill, or nearly kill, a child.
“There’s going to need to be a lot of advocacy, really grassroots advocacy from mothers, from grandparents, from citizens who care to try to get federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines enacted in Congress,” she said.
The U.S. Attorney General has until the end of the year to release the report.