“I have worked at the agency for a long time, and I have never seen such massive changes to our practice,” Dayna Revay, the head of Beaver County Children and Youth Services, said during a presentation to county commissioners last month.
Revisions to the child protective services law — which address everything from mandatory reporting to the actual definition of child abuse — are effective Wednesday.
RELATED: Child Abuse Reporting Bill
The bill was first introduced in 2005 by state Sen. Wayne D. Fontana, D-42, Pittsburgh. Fontana reintroduced the bill in every legislative session until it finally passed the House in March. It was signed soon after by Gov. Tom Corbett.
Defining child abuse
Until now, the legal definition of physical child abuse was contingent on a child sustaining severe pain from an injury intentionally inflicted by a caregiver. A physician was then required to determine that the child underwent a serious physical injury.
As a result of changes to the law, the requirement of inflicted pain has been reduced from severe to substantial. The definition of serious physical injury also has been broadened, to bodily injury. According to Revay’s presentation, bodily injury is defined as impairment or substantial pain, rather than severe pain or lasting impairment, as the previous standard dictated.
In terms of mental injury, the previous standard stated a caregiver had to cause a child’s psychological condition in order for it to be considered abuse. According to the new law, a standard of serious mental injury has to be achieved by the caregiver either causing or substantially contributing to the injury through any act or failure to act on the child’s behalf.
Some additions also have been adapted into the law.
For example, neglect of a child, which previously was evaluated based on a prolonged period, only has to occur once in order to be considered abuse. Additionally, if a caregiver knowingly leaves a child with a registered sex offender, it is now considered child abuse, unless the offender is the child’s biological parent.
“That’s a very significant change,” Beaver County District Attorney Anthony Berosh said, referring to the new definition.
“I think it will give a better understanding of how big the universe is so we can work with it,” he said. “The old definition created a rather limited universe. Now, obviously, that universe is broader for us at least to review and make a prosecutorial decision one way or another.”
Dr. Mary Carrasco, director of A Child’s Place at Mercy, agreed, calling the changes “major.” Carrasco believes “this very expansive change” will result in more reporting and more cases for CYS, police, doctors and lawyers.
But she doesn’t think it will happen overnight.
The reality, Carrasco said, is that a lot of physicians “did not know the regulations to begin with.” Now, training for physicians and those considered required to report has been expanded under the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.
“The more we do to make people aware of changes in the law, the better,” she said.
Diagnosing child abuse
According to Carrasco, diagnosing child abuse has “always been a complicated issue,” but she believes the child abuse amendments will help physicians make determinations.
For example, Carrasco said many physicians have encountered injured children who did not achieve the standard of severe pain. “(Some might say) ‘I don’t know if that’s severe pain,’ then the patient would come back in later badly injured or dead,” she said.
There is no standard threshold for determining the pain suffered by a patient, Carrasco said; it is left to the judgment of the physician. “It is subjective,” she said, but the new measures will help doctors intervene when necessary.
That doesn’t mean families will be excessively evaluated. Carrasco wants the image of CYS coming in and immediately taking kids away from their parents to be dissolved. “That’s not what happens,” she said.
For example, a new mother found with levels of marijuana in her system should be held to an assessment by CYS under the new law. That doesn’t mean the infant will necessarily be taken from the mother. A case worker will look to the level of functioning within the family and determine what should be done, Carrasco said.
She looks at these changes in a positive light. Yes, the workload will increase, but Carrasco believes the larger number of families who are being screened means more people in need of appropriate care will be reached. “CYS provides support when appropriate,” she said.
In terms of prosecuting abuse, law enforcement and lawyers will follow the same process, with the amendments to the law in mind.
“You still have to be able to establish beyond a reasonable doubt for a conviction of what actually was the cause,” Berosh said.
Required to report
Mandated reporters now include anyone who is involved with the care, supervision, guidance or interaction of children. This includes anyone who is licensed to practice in any health-related field under the jurisdiction of the state, employees of any form of child-care service, medical examiners, coroners and funeral directors, all school employees including those at colleges or universities, and anyone who regularly accepts paid or unpaid responsibility of a child.
School employees now have to immediately report suspected abuse to the Pennsylvania ChildLine and Abuse Registry, a 24-hour hotline designed for reporting abuse.
“It relieves (teachers) too of trying to make those decisions. Whether or not to call the police — it relieves them of that burden (because they have to call),” Berosh said.
Schools also have to call the district attorney’s office. “It covers the forgotten call,” Berosh said. “If somebody forgets to call us, there’s somebody else that’s required to call us.”
He believes this effort has been made so that abuse isn’t kept in-house, referring to the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State.
In a previous interview with The Times, Fontana said, “There’s no question that had something to do with it. If this bill would have been a law (Mike) McQueary would have had to report to an investigative agency, not just a superior.”