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Package of child-protection bills headed to Corbett

HARRISBURG - More than two years in the making, a package of bills to strengthen the state's child-protection laws was approved by legislators Wednesday and sent to the governor.

HARRISBURG - More than two years in the making, a package of bills to strengthen the state's child-protection laws was approved by legislators Wednesday and sent to the governor.

One bill widens the net for adults who could be held responsible in suspected child abuse. Another seeks to improve coordination among county and law enforcement agencies that investigate such claims.

But a bill mandating that suspected abuse be reported directly to state welfare officials - a requirement some say could have snagged Jerry Sandusky years before his arrest - is on hold at least until January.

Five bills are en route to Gov. Corbett in a package that emerged in the wake of the child sex-abuse scandal that led to the former Pennsylvania State University football coach's imprisonment and the looming trials of former Penn State president Graham B. Spanier and two former administrators.

Corbett's office said he would sign the measures, plus another expected to pass next week.

"These bills will help make Pennsylvania a safer place for our children," said Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne), who sponsored a key piece of the legislation. "Yes, headline-grabbing cases are out there. But these [bills] will also work to address those day-in and day-out cases that weren't making headlines, and help to protect more children from being harmed."

Baker's bill broadens the definition of a "perpetrator" of child abuse by expanding the list of who can be considered a perpetrator and clarifying who can be held responsible for ignoring signs or failing to act against abuse.

Perpetrators defined under the bill would now include a child's parents; a parent's spouse or former spouse (or a parent's partner or former partner); and anyone over 18 who is responsible for a child or who lives in the same house with a child.

One pending proposal is a bill championed by child advocates that would strengthen the mandatory-reporting law - which covers teachers, day-care operators, and other individuals who have regular contact with children - by requiring that all reports be made to the Department of Public Welfare.

That measure grew from the Penn State scandal, where assistant football coach Mike McQueary's claim that he witnessed a sexual assault by Sandusky was reported only to McQueary's superiors at the school - in effect leaving an educational institution in charge of determining whether abuse had occurred.

The fate of that bill was not immediately known. Some advocates said it had been stalled because of disagreement over whether to include attorneys in the list of mandatory reporters. Because of the legislature's winter break, it will not be decided until next year.

The bill expected to clear the House next week would strengthen the definition of child abuse.

Now, doctors or nurses examining a child must determine whether the child has suffered "severe pain" as a result of abuse, said Cathleen Palm, who leads the Center for Children's Justice, an advocacy group. That is because the legal definition currently requires "serious bodily injury." The bill would change that to "bodily injury" of any kind.

"The definition drives everything," said Palm, "and it will put less emphasis on the level of a pain a child is experiencing, which is so subjective."

The GOP-led House is expected to send the bill to Corbett, spokesman Steve Miskin said. The governor has said he intends to sign it as well.

Another measure, sponsored by Sen. LeAnna Washington (D., Phila.) and approved Wednesday, would clarify and streamline the law to ensure better coordination in child-abuse investigations among county agencies and law enforcement.

Said Washington, a survivor of child abuse: "I don't care about whether my name is on any of these bills. I just want them to get done so that no child will ever have to go through what I went through in my younger years."