Fontana: Reforming Child Abuse Laws 'Taking a Long Time'

Aug 6, 2013

A Pittsburgh-area state lawmaker believes last week’s conviction of a former Pittsburgh Public Schools police officer demonstrates the need for immediate reporting of suspected child abuse.

Robert Lellock, 44, of Pittsburgh was convicted of sexually assaulting four boys at the Rooney Middle School on the North Side during the 1998-99 academic year.

State Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny) said if his mandatory reporting of abuse of children had been law “a full aggressive investigation likely would have ensued.”  The school principal at the time told Lellock’s supervisor about his suspicions, but the victim refused to talk to police.

In July 2012 one of the victims came forward leading to an investigation during which three other victims were found.

Fontana’s measure (SB 31) is part of a 16-bill package being considered in the Senate.

“This legislation is about reporting, mandatory reporting to not just a supervisor but to either police or Childline regardless of whether you’re a school employee or not and regardless of what type of abuse you see,” Fontana said.

He said his bill eliminates confusion about who should report suspected child abuse and to whom.

“I think all of these things become very apparent and very precise in the legislation, and I think it shows that we as a legislature are paying attention to the needs of our children and the issues that are out there concerning child abuse,” Fontana said.

The legislative package, all assigned to either the Aging and Youth Committee or  the Communications and Technology Committee, would:

  • Update to the definition of “child abuse” (SB 20)
  • Expand the list of mandatory reporters (SB 21)
  • Increase the penalty for failure to report child abuse (SB 22)
  • Expand the definition of “perpetrators” to include employees or volunteers who have direct regular contact with children (SB 23)  
  • Create a state database to hold information on child abuse reports (SB 24)
  • Create a three digit, statewide phone number for reporting child abuse similar to 911 (SB 26)
  • Provide whistleblower protection for child abuse reporting (SB 33)

Fontana said he first introduced the mandatory reporting bill in 2005, but it never came up for a vote. 

But now that bill is part of a bipartisan package. 

“(They’re) all in position to run for the fall; we’ll see what happens,” Fontana said. “I’m optimistic.”