Seminar in Greencastle addresses child abuse laws

PAT FRIDGEN, Echo Pilot

Approximately 35 people representing churches, schools, service organizations, law enforcement and youth sports attended a seminar sponsored by Rep. Paul Schemel on June 22.

The topic was Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law, which expanded background checks required for adults in direct contact with children. It created questions on which volunteers or employees were affected in a multitude of organizations, and was seen as burdensome by many.

Brian Weir, Program Specialist II with Franklin County Children and Youth Service, explained the law as interpreted by his department, at the Besore Memorial Library meeting room. Various pieces of the law took effect in 2014, with three in particular valid as of Dec. 31.

Because of scandals involving Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, the Philadelphia Archdiocese, and “Cash-for-Kids” in Luzerne County, former governor Tom Corbett started the wheels rolling on tightening the law to protect children.

Weir walked the audience through the three points that most affected them.

Child Abuse

The legislature redefined child abuse to include anyone intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily or mental harm, faking a medical condition for a child, commiting sexual abuse, or creating a situation where harm could occur, any of these by an act or failure to act.

But because any situation could be difficult to assess, Weir warned, “Don’t try to figure out what child abuse is. If it doesn’t sit right, feel right - report it.”

The investigators would determine if the child was being mistreated.

Reports could be called in to Child Line at 1-800-932-0313, online at www.compass.state.pa.us/cwis, to the county at 717-263-1900 during regular business hours and at 717-263-1611 during the off hours, and finally, in an emergency, to dial 911.

Mandated reporters

Adults considered mandated reporters included employees or volunteers who were an integral part of a regularly scheduled program and had responsibility for a child. Any involved person over 14 years of age fell into this category. Sometimes a report also required a followup written statement.

Background checks

The audience was particularly concerned about the clearance clause.

Additionally, the timing of background checks was confusing, since Gov. Tom Wolf announced June 10 that volunteers would get fee waivers starting July 25.

“It’s a change in the right direction,” Weir said. “It won’t be such a burden on organizations.”

Current fees are Pennsylvania State Police criminal history, $10; Child Abuse clearance, $10; and FBI fingerprinting, $27.50 or $28.75. The first two fees will be at no cost to volunteers in a month. For employees, the price for the first two will drop to $8.

Clearances will be required every three years.

Still, there were quirks.

Schemel hoped at some point there would be a federal database so clearances would be eaiser to obtain. People had to go through the process more than once, depending on who paid for the checks, where they worked or volunteered, and which state department processed the information.

Another bill under consideration would clarify who truly had regular contact with children. Fire departments had complained about that one.

“Someone who sees kids only intermittently doesn’t fit the pattern of an abuser out to groom victims,” Schemel said.

He confirmed that anyone who had recently paid for background checks would not get a refund.

Weir said an organization’s leadership should determine who needed clearances, but the best practice was that everyone should just get them.

The date of compliance was also unclear, depending on when volunteers began serving and how long they lived in Pennsylvania. Therefore, the state would be giving non-profit organizations time to understand the law as it pertained to them.

Success

Weir urged compliance, along with training for mandatory reporters, regardless of any audit system that could be used by the overwhelmed bureaucracy.

“As long as people are cleared and trained, we are doing our job,” he said.

Schemel added that if volunteers had not been screened and there was a problem, the organization would “get burned.”

He gave an example of a local church which required all of its volunteers to go through the checks. One person dropped out. Curious, the leaders looked up the Megan’s Law database, and discovered the person was registered as a child sex offender. Another organization also found a perpetrator in its ranks.