Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler chairs the PA Task Force on Child Protection, which disbands at the end of the year. The panel was created by the General Assembly in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, and given a year to review the state’s laws on reporting child abuse and responding to it.
“We’ve met a total of 17 times,” said Heckler about the group’s 11 members, appointed by the governor and the leaders of the state House and Senate. He added the panel has heard from more than 60 witnesses.
“If we’d done nothing more, if we’d just stopped right there and provided the record that we had generated hearing from those folks to those who have to think about legislation, I think we would’ve done a great deal right there,” said Heckler.
The panel will complete its mission Tuesday, when it is scheduled to issue its report of recommendations for the state’s laws and procedures related to child abuse, just a few days shy of the November 30 deadline.
Recommendations include a “complete re-writing” of the state’s child protective services law, which, among other things, defines who must report suspected child abuse and distinguishes the state and county governments’ responsibilities within child protective services.
The panel will also suggest the creation of new tools to investigate child abuse, and the criminalization of other behavior, such as the intimidation of reporters of child abuse. Heckler said the panel heard from doctors from “some of the tougher sections of Pittsburgh” who feared for their well-being after they flagged suspected child abuse. “The parents or kin of the victims took it ill and wished to respond — sort of an extension of the ‘Don’t Snitch’ philosophy,” said Heckler.
Abuse victims’ advocates have repeatedly spotlighted the lack of necessary resources given to the state’s child abuse reporting hotline, a topic that also gets some ink in the task force’s final report, said Heckler. He noted that Childline has been “malnourished,” and suggested some of its problems might be solved by allowing the office to take suspected abuse reports not only by phone, but online as well.
Most of the group’s recommendations are more complicated than that. Heckler said the task force’s final report could give rise to “30 or 40” pieces of legislation, and getting them all passed will take “ongoing dialogue” on the subject of protecting children.
“Call me every year for the next five years,” Heckler said. “Let’s make sure the Legislature keeps their eye on that ball.”
But some of the most obvious constraints — cost — were not issues addressed by Heckler’s group. Recommendations were not drafted with accompanying price tags. The task force chairman said that’s the Legislature’s job.
“We can’t do all this in year one. There isn’t the money,” said Heckler. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t talk about it. It means the Legislature and the governor have to prioritize.”