Pennsylvania’s Child Abuse Laws are Putting Kids in Danger, Say Experts

Advocates, lawyers and child welfare workers in Pennsylvania are saying that the state’s child abuse laws make it difficult to protect the kids they’re entrusted to help. The has more on this alarming situation:

A bruised ear kept the Bucks County child welfare caseworker awake at night. The injury wasn’t to her, but rather a child whose case she was assigned.

The woman wanted the injury investigated as suspected child abuse since an ear bruise is rarely accidental. In the end, though, she and her supervisors decided against opening a case.

The reason: A bruise doesn’t meet Pennsylvania’s threshold for child abuse.

The laws use what some experts consider to be vague language, which makes it hard to act on abuse allegations and even harder to prove them:

Pennsylvania’s law requires an injury to cause both severe pain and temporary or permanent impairment to substantiate child abuse. Child advocates argue that the use of a pain threshold is far too subjective and it doesn’t take into account that children who suffer regular physical abuse often develop higher pain thresholds.

Other aspects of the law that have been criticized include limitations on who can be considered an abuse perpetrator, and the state’s policy of destroying all records of “unfounded” child abuse claims, even in cases where physical or sexual abuse is medically confirmed. Another major limitation, according to advocates, is that a perpetrator must be identified for a claim of child abuse to be substantiated.

In other words, even if a doctor says a child has been abused, the claim of abuse can be thrown out if investigators can’t identify who was responsible. It makes for an unacceptable standard, according to some who handle child abuse cases:

Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler agrees that requiring identification of a perpetrator to substantiate abuse is ridiculous in cases where there is medical confirmation of inflicted injury.

“That, of course, is nonsense,” he said. “That has to change.”

While these laws do not impact the ability of the police and prosecutors to pursue criminal investigations and file charges against suspected abusers, the numbers show outcome of most abuse reports:

In 2010, only 35 percent of child abuse reports in the state were referred to law enforcement for possible criminal investigation and prosecution.

If these laws go unchanged, advocates say it’s the children who will pay the price:

“Kids are slipping through the cracks in this state,” [said Catherine Palm, executive director of the Protect Our Children Committee] “Children and Youth can only be as good as the laws and the resources we give them.”

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