There are certain obligations we all share as a society. Topping the list is our children’s safety. We have once again been reminded of this responsibility as Penn State officials recently announced that settlement agreements had been reached with 26 of the victims of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
It has been nearly two years since this tragedy overtook Penn State University. As Penn State President Rodney Erickson announced the settlement agreements last week, he made a very accurate statement. He said, “We cannot undo what has been done, but we can and must do everything possible to learn from this and ensure it never happens again at Penn State.”
For many Pennsylvanians, Sandusky’s horrific actions prompted fears and concerns that went far beyond the football field. Those fears centered on the safety of their own children, their neighbors’ kids and all of Pennsylvania’s young people who may fall prey to such criminals. This logically led many to question whether our current state laws have enough teeth in them to ensure that the actions of monsters like Sandusky are reported and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
On the heels of Sandusky’s indictment in 2011, the General Assembly created the Task Force on Child Protection to comprehensively study the state’s child abuse laws with the aim of determining which ones needed to be revised and strengthened. A year later, in November 2012, the group released its 427-page report, which is available in its entirety at www.childprotection.state.pa.us.
When the House of Representatives returned to session in January 2013, we immediately held a series of public hearings on the report. Out of this emerged 26 pieces of legislation that have been passed by the House and now await action in the state Senate.
These measures seek to strengthen the child welfare system and the laws that are in place to protect our children. Some of the bills we passed address issues that were brought to light via the Sandusky case.
The bills approved by the House address a wide array of issues that start with strengthening the definition of child abuse to allow additional abusive behaviors to be substantiated as child abuse. We also approved several measures that increase criminal penalties for child abusers. These bills would target those who assault children, attempt to lure them into vehicles or conceal the death of a child, as well as those convicted of possessing or viewing child pornography.
We voted to substantially clarify and expand child abuse reporting requirements so that no one turns a blind eye to crimes against our young people. Included are measures that prescribe penalties for willful failure by mandated reporters to report incidents, for preventing or attempting to prevent reporting, and for anyone concealing abuse in order to protect a person or organization.
Although we strive to ensure that no children are victims of abuse, we realize that in our society complete protection is simply not possible and incidents will occur. That’s why a significant focus of this legislative package is on services and support for victims and their families. We have acted to improve and redirect state funding to Children’s Advocacy Centers. The facilities specialize in conducting thorough forensic interviews with abused children and provide training, prevention and treatment services to fight child abuse. In fact, the Western PA Cares for Kids in Brookville serves as a model for others around the state.
The spectrum of our work would not be complete without legislation focusing on the prevention of child abuse. Here we have approved measures to include materials in school curricula to assist in identifying child exploitation, and new training requirements that will help police officers and judges recognize and report abuse.
The horrific incidents of sexual abuse that were brought to light very publicly in 2011 served as a grim reminder of the children who could be at risk all across the commonwealth. Two years ago we received a wake-up call. While we cannot change the past, we can move forward and strive to ensure history is not repeated. My hope is that we will see the legislation that has been acted upon by the House and Senate signed into law by the governor. The safety of our children must be a high priority. For a complete listing of the child protection bills approved by the House, you may visit my website at www.samsmithpahouse.com.
State Rep. Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, is House Speaker. His 66th Legislative District includes part of northern Indiana County.