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Politics & Government

State Lawmakers Propose Expanded Definition of Child Abuse

State lawmakers are getting ready to move forward with proposals to expand the definition of child abuse in Pennsylvania in an effort to flag more incidents of suspected mistreatment.

The changes come at the suggestion of a task force convened last year to study child protection laws and issues.

Attorney Jason Kutulakis, a member of the panel, said the commonwealth’s legal definition of child abuse must be expanded and made clearer.

"It’s not just prosecuting," he said. "It’s identifying a child who’s been harmed so they can be provided services – medical services, social services, mental health services where appropriate."

A raft of other child protection measures have been proposed based on recommendations of the child protection panel, but lawmakers say addressing the legal definition of child abuse is the most crucial of them.

"This is the keystone," said Republican state Senator Bob Mensch of Montgomery County. "It’s the first step in providing however many number of bills that come out and allow them to be interrelated, interdependent. So that the people have to prosecute and investigate have one set of standards."

Mensch does expect to wrap up the work on the definition before the summer. He said the Senate will probably approve changes in September.
Once the Senate tackles changes to the definition of child abuse, Mensch said it can focus on other recommendations handed down last year from a panel that studied child protection laws.

"I think the next issue is mandatory reporting — understand that and who has to be a mandatory reporter, how do we do the training," he said. "Course, the training is going to be contingent on what is the, what are the definitions. So that’s why, again, that’s why the definition’s so critical."
Another proposal in the House to change the definition of child abuse is scheduled for a committee vote next week.

“All other legislation we consider regarding child protection will hinge on this definition,” said sponsor Rep. Scott Petri (R-Bucks) in a written statement.
Sean McCormack, Chief Deputy District Attorney of Dauphin County, said one of reasons the definition of child abuse must be expanded is that it is parsed by well-meaning institutions.

"Whether it be hospitals or schools or religious organizations, lawyers are looking at these definitions and saying, ‘In this situation you have to report, in this situation you don’t have to report,’" McCormack said. "And if it’s a situation in which you don’t have to report, there is encouragement not to report."