You can’t turn on the news, or open a newspaper today, without hearing about the state Attorney General’s charges against former and current employees of Penn State University related to the sexual abuse of children.
The charges and the events behind the charges are shocking and disturbing. And as much as we would like to go back and change what happened, we cannot. No matter what action we take today or tomorrow, we cannot change what happened to these children. We send our thoughts and prayer to the victims and their families. We can act, however, and take steps to provide additional protections to our children moving forward by passing Senate Bill 549 (SB 549).
I first introduced a version of this bill in September of 2005, shortly after I was elected. Through each and every version of it, I have worked with stakeholders—both those who are in favor of the proposed changes and those who had concerns. In that process, I have made concessions and changes to the bill. I have met with those groups that my colleagues have asked me to and my staff has spoken with each and every person who has contacted my office on this bill—to hear their story, to determine if we can address their concerns and to continue to improve this bill.
In the past three legislative sessions, the bill has died. This version, Senate Bill 549 (PN 652) was unanimously reported from the Aging & Youth Committee on May 24. It was re-referred on June 20 to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it remains today. Sen. Kim Ward, the chair of the committee, has remained involved in the discussions and negotiations on this legislation—and has advocated for its consideration and passage by the Senate Appropriations Committee. Past versions have been worked on in cooperation with Sen. Pat Vance’s office and Sen. Jane Orie’s office. This has been a bipartisan effort all along.
That is what SB 549 and the drafted amendment to it does. It amends the Child Protective Services Law to address suspected abuse by school employees. The bill would lower the threshold for when suspected child abuse by a school employee must be reported and investigated. The bill also allows information from a report to be provided to a person’s employer if it relates to the employee’s suitability in the workplace.
The bill removes any separate reporting procedures and would require that reports are made in the same way regardless of who the suspected perpetrator is or what the offense is to ensure that the child’s welfare is the first priority. The bill strengthens the immunity provisions for those individuals making reports, providing both civil and criminal immunity if the person participates in good faith in making a report (mandated or not), cooperating with an investigation, testifying in a proceeding, or referring a report to law enforcement.
I have been asked what difference SB 549 would have made in the Penn State case. If SB 549 were law, the graduate assistant’s responsibility would have been to contact police and/or child protective services immediately to report what he had seen.
If SB 549 were law, administrators would have been notified of the report, but would not have had a role in getting it to law enforcement or child protective services.
We should have already acted on this legislation—years ago. Each year that passes, I get more calls from parents whose children have been abused and understand they have no other recourse. What happened in Penn State is horrible, but there were laws in place that could have protected these children. We have an opportunity to make the laws we do have in place…better—and to protect more children with the passage of SB 549 and I will continue to advocate for that.
I am asking—begging you—to join me in this. Please, act now to protect our children.
Last, but not least, let me say this. You can no longer be silent either. If you know, or suspect, that a child is being abused—do not hesitate. Call 9-1-1 and report it to law enforcement. Reach out to DPW’s Child Protective Services at 1-800-932-0313. Contact Childhelp (non-profit agency that provides reporting numbers and counselors who can provide referrals) at 1-800-422-4453.
Whatever you do, though, speak out!