EDITORIAL: Cheap attempt at child abuse reform
We don’t fault Pennsylvania lawmakers for acting swiftly to reform state child abuse laws in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
This wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction, as legislatures are sometimes wont to offer after a high-profile, horrific story grabs the public’s attention.
In fact, attempts were made to revamp state child welfare laws before the Sandusky case made headlines in 2011. The resulting public outrage simply shined a spotlight on the problem, prompting the creation of the Task Force on Child Protection, a panel of experts whose recommendations finally led to the reform.
The 23 new laws didn’t even take effect fully until 2015.
It was the first major update to Pennsylvania’s child abuse laws in two decades, bringing them in line with laws in most other states.
In short, the legislation expanded the definition of mandatory reporters, streamlined the reporting process, increased penalties for mandatory reporters who fail to do so and provided protections from employment discrimination for filing a report in good faith.
The reforms were needed and, it appears, long overdue.
No, we fault our lawmakers for trying to do this important reform on the cheap.
How anyone could think such a significant upgrade — designed to increase the number of suspected child abuse cases — wouldn’t require a significant increase in funding is beyond us.
A key part of the reform package was the bill expanding mandatory reporting of suspected abuse. Yet lawmakers were told by the Appropriation Committees in both chambers that there shouldn't be any additional cost related to increased calls to the state's child abuse hotline.
Fiscal notes, which lay out the projected costs of implementing legislation, said there should be no "increase in ChildLine calls that can't be absorbed within current funding."
Not surprisingly, that wasn’t the case.
Calls to the state's child abuse hotline increased 14 percent last year, yet 22 percent of all calls went unanswered and numerous others weren't monitored by a supervisor or didn't generate reports.
That’s according to a report released last month by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who said lawmakers’ failure to boost funding when they expanded child abuse laws represents “a disturbing failure” that’s putting lives at risk.
The state Department of Human Services, which runs ChildLine, is requesting more state money, as is the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families, which saw an 86 percent increase in referrals last year.
The county office is operating under its third provisional license. Child welfare offices in Philadelphia, Dauphin and Luzerne counties also are operating under provisional licenses.
DePasquale called the optimistic fiscal notes “a joke,” adding, “How anyone could think there is no fiscal impact is beyond belief.”
We agree. Lawmakers should have known better.
And if they weren’t sure what to expect with new laws, as some told The York Dispatch for its special report published last week, they should have planned for the worst and hoped for the best.
Not the other way around.
Not when a child’s life could be at stake.
We hope the Legislature acts quickly fix this alarming problem.