Legislation that would broaden the scope of what constitutes child abuse has cleared the state House of Representatives.

“We are way below the national average for instances of found cases of child abuse because our definition is too narrow,” said Donna Pinkham, spokeswoman for the House Republican Caucus. “In some instances, you can practically starve a child and it not be considered abuse.”

The sponsor of HB 726, state Representative Scott Petri, R-Bucks, said reporters of child abuse, which include police officers, teachers, doctors, child-care workers and others who work with or around children, base their judgments on the definitions provided in Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law.

“Current law is too vague and the burden of proof is too high,” Petri said. “My bill would fix that and would help to ensure that actions that most people would regard as abuse will be judged accordingly and children will be protected.”

According to Petri, the threshold is met only when there is proof a child has experienced severe pain or significant physical impairment. Additionally, mandated reporters, such as pediatricians, become frustrated when the cases they report are unfounded − not because there was no abuse but because the law is inadequate to protect children.

Petri’s bill is one of 19 child-protection bills stemming from a report by the Task Force on Child Protection that have been passed in the House and are now awaiting Senate action.

The Senate Aging and Youth Committee recently held a hearing on similar legislation, S 20, sponsored by the committee’s minority chair, state Senator LeAnna Washington, D-Montgomery, which seeks to define child abuse under the CPSL as recklessly or intentionally causing bodily injury or serious bodily injury to a child.

The measures appear likely to require a House-Senate conference for reconciliation, lawmakers said.

—John L. Kennedy, for the Law Weekly