Several pieces of legislation aimed at improving the safety of Pennsylvania children cleared the Pennsylvania House of Representatives earlier this month and await action in the state Senate.

But one of the bills moving to the upper house has drawn ire from child advocates, who say it fails to adequately take into account the recommendations of a task force aimed at abuse prevention and would make matters "worse."

The legislation stems from the recommendations of the state Task Force on Child Protection and includes measures such as HB 404, which would make it a felony to violently intimidate or retaliate against a witness or victim of child abuse, HB 316, aimed at funding child advocacy centers, and HB 19, which would provide education to school children on child exploitation.

Other bills now in the Senate include measures to increase the courts’ awareness about perpetrators and victims of child abuse. For example, HB 328 is aimed at informing the court when a defendant in a protection from abuse petition has been the subject of a prior child-abuse investigation; HB 414 would require the court to be provided with certain information about the abuse history of a child who is the subject of a custody hearing.

The laws’ sponsors all pointed to the task force in circulating memos for support of their legislation. The task force gained traction as the issue of child abuse came under an unyielding spotlight while the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal played out in Pennsylvania.

But some child advocates are taking issue with a pending piece of legislation on the definition of physical abuse, highlighting the fact that parts of the bill run counter to the task force’s suggestions and, as one attorney specializing in child advocacy put it, becomes "problematic by being both over- and underinclusive."

HB 726, sponsored by state Representative Scott Petri, R-Bucks, is awaiting word from the House.

Frank Cervone, the executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, said he was surprised the bill did not include the recommendations of the task force.

"This bill makes it worse," Cervone said. "We’ve been very clear with Petri."

Cervone said the biggest problem with the bill is the definition of corporal punishment, which, while legal in Pennsylvania, is held to a precariously high standard before becoming child abuse, according to Cervone.

The bill leaves out of the definition of child abuse the use of force by a parent or guardian, or a person acting at their request, if the following conditions apply: if the force is for the child’s safety; the force is not designed to cause or is not "known to create a substantial risk of causing death, serious bodily injury, disfigurement, extreme pain or mental distress or gross degradation"; the use of force is reasonable considering the circumstances surroundings its use and the physical and mental maturity and condition of the child.

Cervone said the bill is too ambiguous in terms of appropriateness of force as it relates to age.

"What is reasonable force for a 3-year-old, an infant?" Cervone said. "The pediatricians tell us that physical discipline of a child under 2 is virtually useless for teaching purposes. The child is not going to learn from being struck, which begs the question: If the child’s not going to learn, what are you doing it for?"

"This whole section on corporal punishment is even worse," Cervone said.

Unchanged in the law from its predecessor is the definition of serious physical injury, which is defined as one that "causes a child severe pain; or significantly impairs a child’s physical functioning, either temporarily or permanently."

The task force, on the other hand, had recommended legislators remove the "severe pain" threshold.

The task force also recommended the expansion of the definition of child abuse to include "intentional or reckless acts, attempts to act, and failures to act that cause or create a reasonable likelihood of bodily injury or serious bodily injury."

The proposed legislation defines abuse as "any recent act or failure to act by a perpetrator which causes nonaccidental bodily injury to a child." In other words, the law would require intentionality.

Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Protect Our Children Committee, echoed Cervone’s sentiment, saying she was surprised the law doesn’t incorporate the task force’s position. She said the law keeps the bar high for what constitutes parental child abuse and "still invites a lot of ambiguity and subjectivity."

"I’m not a lawyer, but as a mom, it sounds like I could do a heck of a lot to a child before it’s considered child abuse," Palm said. "We had hoped it’d be a little more clear cut."

Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler, the chairman of the task force, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Petri, the prime sponsor of HB 726, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Ben Present can be contacted at 215-557-2315 or bpresent@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @BPresentTLI. •