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House Bill 1575 Testimony

April 13, 2010

 

Good morning Chairman Caltagirone, Representative Marsico and members of the Judiciary Committee.   On behalf of the Protect Our Children Committee – Pennsylvania’s leading statewide coalition dedicated to child abuse prevention and targeted child welfare reform — I appreciate the opportunity to offer testimony today on House Bill 1575.  

 

At noon today, child welfare professionals, parents, child advocates, state lawmakers, county officials and representative of the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) will gather to recognize April as National Child Abuse Prevention month.  This event is one of many occurring all across Pennsylvania intended to remember the toll – human and fiscal – that child abuse exacts and to reinforce that each of us has a role in preventing child abuse and strengthening families. 

 

One way to keep children safe is for willing adults to pay attention to, not ignore, that feeling in our gut that a child may not be safe, that the bruises we see or the changed almost cowering behavior of a youth may be signs of child abuse.   

This past year there were plenty of reminders that too many times adults in

  • Pennsylvania failed to speak up for a child including:

  •  Four teachers in the Council Rock School District who have now resigned or been dismissed for failing to report a teacher’s sexual abuse of a student;

  • A pediatrician charged with failing to report suspected child abuse – abuse that eventually cost the young baby her life;

  • The Liberty High School gym teacher criminally charged for failing to report the sexual abuse of a student, and

  • Numerous family, friends and professionals haunted by the fact that they did not come forward when time and resources could have been on the side of a child versus when funeral preparations were underway.

Intervention in the life of children and families, as a result of allegations of child abuse or neglect, is one of the most compelling and consequential actions undertaken. Decisions made impact the safety, liberty and custody of children and families.  

 

Suspected abuse at a child care facility, in a group home, school or foster home also have implications not just for the individual child but a collective community of children. 

 The stakes are high no question about it. 

 House Bill 1575 has value in that there are huge expectations on the child welfare system, the choices made so consequential even as the resources are not endless.  There is little room for error and absolutely no tolerance for the system or its constrained resources being used for malicious or frivolous reports – reports that even if weeded out early might result in trauma and disruption for children and those accused of abuse.  Any false report of child abuse is too many.  We all can point to an incident where we know the child welfare system was asked to respond to a call from a vindictive neighbor or divorcing parents.  

 And yet despite its value, POCC would urge caution about House Bill 1575 and would request a refocusing of this Committee’s agenda toward any or all of the following: 

  •  Troubling trends for children when it comes to prevention services, including fewer opportunities for vulnerable families to be connected to proven voluntary home visiting programs or other family strengthening efforts;

  • Since 2002 the state has recorded 300 child abuse deaths – the majority of children killed never having celebrated their first birthday and many having some connection to the child welfare system;
  • Analysis about child abuse data to better determine whether a sixteen percent substantiation rate of child abuse is a statistic to celebrate or to raise alarm or how it is influenced by Pennsylvania’s narrow definition of child abuse;
  • Ending erroneous conclusions that an unsubstantiated report of child abuse is equivalent to a false report, reflective of misguided intentions of the reporter or worse that a child did not in fact experience any abuse;
  • Recognizing the critical role of mandated child abuse reporters and the necessity to elevate the training requirements for such reporters, particularly those in school settings so that they better understand their legal obligations and how PA defines child abuse;
  • Examining the value add to the child welfare system of multidisciplinary teams, Children’s Advocacy Centers, and child testimony options;
  • Identification of a timely strategy to create a statewide Children’s Ombudsperson, to infuse independence and impartiality into the child welfare system. 

We would advocate that any of these areas is immediately a better place to shine the Committee’s spotlight as compared to false reporting – reports that national data consistently demonstrates accounts for .01 percent or less of all reports.   

It is also imperative to understand that House Bill 1575 may result in unintended consequences.

Today’s hearing for instance has the potential to suggest that false reporting is commonplace – it is the priority most worthy of this committee’s energy and focus. 

Mandated reporters may be worried that to make a report subjects them to criminal penalties if it is determined to be “false” and yet to not make the report also subjects them to criminal penalties for failure to report.   All of this responsibility at a time that there remains no legal mandate for such reporters to undergo education and training.  

As the Commonwealth diligently works to remove the stain inflicted on the judicial system as a result of the Luzerne County cash-for-kids scandal, House Bill 1575 and the criminal penalties attached to it may well send a chilling message to children and youth placed in out-of-home care – many of these youth are already sufficiently alienated.    

The motivation behind the introduction of House Bill 1575 is understood, but there are many more compelling issue areas and systemic ways to improve child welfare, to prioritize child safety and to better assure the system’s integrity.    

In the end, however, it is also true that advancing House Bill 1575 would not be entirely out-of-step with where other states have already gone. 

 

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF), “approximately 28 states carry penalties in their civil child protection laws for any person who willfully or intentionally makes a false report of child abuse or neglect that the reporter knows to be false.”  Twenty states have enacted laws to classify false reporting “as a misdemeanor or similar charge” with eleven states outlining the specific penalties for making such a false report.  Finally, in six states, a person who makes a false report “may be civilly liable for any damages caused by the report.” 

 

Where House Bill 1575 does appear to differ from the work of other states relates to the absence of language to reflect that the criminal penalties attach to reports that are intentionally false, made with malicious intent.  Greater attention to such language and intention should be considered if House Bill 1575 is to advance.

 

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today and to request that together we continue to elevate efforts to prevent child abuse, to strengthen families. 

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