December 2011 Whip Report - Tougher Child Protection Laws Needed
This year has seen some heart-wrenching events in our nation with respect to child welfare.
Since February we have seen a grand jury implicating the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia of child abuse, the Caylee Anthony tragedy in Florida, and the still unfolding Penn State scandal.
Closer to home, the newspaper headlines in York County reveal despicable stories about the treatment of children that make people shake their heads in wonder – “Trial on Horizon for West York Mom in Case of Feces-Strewn House,” “Father Sentenced for Allowing Wife to Endanger his Son,” and “Woman Accused in Hidden Children Case Enters Disorderly Conduct Plea.”
In Carroll Township, a couple in September was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, two counts of child endangerment, and conspiracy to commit those acts in the death of their 7-year-old adopted son. Yet, they only had to serve 567 days in county prison, and are now free to live their lives elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
Many members of the General Assembly, myself included, believe these events we are witnessing demand the enactment of stronger laws protecting children from abuse, neglect, and sexual assault.
First and foremost must be ensuring parents and guardians are able to know if there are convicted sexual predators living in their communities. That is what the Legislature intended when we passed Megan’s Law in 1995. People may forget the measure was named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka of New Jersey, who in 1994 was abducted, sexually assaulted, and then murdered.
Unfortunately, Megan’s Law has been under constant assault by trial lawyers and activist judges, requiring lawmakers to make numerous updates over the years to keep it operational and allow communities to steer their children away from potential danger.
Last year, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled in two cases that transients and out-of-state sex offenders are not required to register under Megan’s Law and cannot be prosecuted for intentionally failing to register.
Of course, this is not acceptable. That is why both houses of the General Assembly recently voted to send legislation to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk that closes these legal loopholes. Once this legislation is signed, convicted sex offenders who refuse registration will be committing a crime and subject to arrest.
Homeless offenders will also be required to register as “transients” every 30 days with the state police at approved registration sites, be photographed, and provide information about where he or she may be located, including a homeless shelter or a park.
It also would place sex offenders into a three-tiered system depending on the severity of the offense committed. The worst offenders would be required to register for life, while those found guilty of less serious offenses would register for 15 years.
The registry information will be shared on a website which the public can use to locate sex offenders in a given ZIP code or geographic radius.
However, strengthening our state’s sex offender registry doesn’t address the instances where children are victimized by their own families. As some of the headlines I have cited show, it is a tragic reality, and one that the House is moving swiftly to address.
Two pieces of legislation that I am a co-sponsoring would make it a felony for a parent or custodian to conceal the death of a child, or provide false information to police in a criminal investigation involving a child. Currently, those crimes are only misdemeanors.
Given the need for all these legal updates to child welfare statutes, it is clear we must conduct a thorough review of Pennsylvania’s child protection and abuse laws.
On Dec. 14, the House voted to create the Task Force on Child Protection, which will perform a comprehensive evaluation of the state’s existing child welfare laws and procedures, as well as any inadequacies relating to the mandatory reporting of child abuse.
The task force will make a final report to the governor and Legislature by Nov. 30, 2012, recommending improvements to the reporting of child abuse, and detailing all essential changes to state law and practices its review has deemed necessary.
Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law website can be accessed at PAMegansLaw.state.pa.us