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Politics & Government

Child Protection Bill Passes, But With Parent's Caution

A state House proposal to make it easier for some to report suspected child abuse is headed to the Senate, though concerns voiced before a final vote suggest some misgivings about legislating a solution to problems of child abuse — that doing so could interfere with parents who discipline their kids with a smack.

One proposal passed by the House Thursday would, in part, allow people who are required by law to report suspected child abuse (like teachers), to do so by e-mail. It would also require people who must report suspected child abuse to go to the state, not just to their superiors.

"You heard from some folks who were very concerned because they are people who — I'll say practice — but make use of, in their raising of their children, corporal punishment," said Rep. Kathy Watson (R-Bucks). "What everybody might say, spanking."

Rep. Tim Krieger (R-Westmoreland) cast one of the few votes against the proposal.

"Not for one minute (do I) think that we need to give child abusers a break here, but there's a line here that we have to be very careful of," he said.

Shortly after decamping from Harrisburg in a car with his own children, he explained his opposition: He's concerned about the potential for law enforcement to get involved "for something that was nothing more than a parent exerting his or her, I think, obligation to discipline their child."

The proposal in question is meant to respond to criticism that the state's child abuse reporting hotline, Childline, is frequently busy and those who are mandated reporters often have to endure long waits or call several times before their report can be received by a child welfare officer. Watson, the bill's sponsor, said it would also address the kind of situation in which a teacher reports suspected abuse to his or her boss, satisfying a legal requirement of reporting, perhaps, but not necessarily ensuring the incident is investigated by a child welfare professional.

Studying and solving problems of the state's child protection system has been a major undertaking by the General Assembly since the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. A raft of bills have been moving on parallel tracks in the House and Senate since lawmakers received the recommendations of a task force they created to study the issue.

Watson said her bill would not interfere with simple discipline.

"The intent is not that you be reported if you swat your child on the bottom," she said, adding that child welfare officers know how to differentiate scolding from abuse.

But Krieger said the proposal should contain more protection for parents.

"We're very good in Pennsylvania in the Legislature of looking at what we intend to happen," he said. "We're not very good at looking at what might happen. And I think when we write legislation we have to look at both."