Penn’s Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research Works To Change Child Protection Laws

A lot can change in a year.

One year ago, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly established a Task Force on Child Protection to review child-abuse-reporting procedures and laws.  In November, the Task Force issued a 400-page report outlining its proposal for revisions to the child abuse-reporting laws in Pennsylvania.

The Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research at the University of Pennsylvania played a major role in contributing to the recommendations for change.

The Field Center is at the forefront of systemic reform on behalf of the victims of child abuse and neglect,” says Debra Schilling Wolfe, the executive director of the Center, a collaborative effort between Penn’s schools of Social Policy & Practice, Law and Nursing and Perelman School of Medicine plus the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Among those participating in the Task Force was Cindy Christian, a faculty director at the Field Center. She is a professor of pediatrics in the Perelman School of Medicine and holds the Endowed Chair in the Prevention of Child Abuse at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“It was a great honor to participate on the Task Force,” says Christian, who helped to identify which key issues needed to be addressed and questioned the experts who provided testimony at a series of hearings across the state.

“The work of our Task Force, like the work we do at the Field Center, encompassed experts with a range of ideas and opinions on how to improve a vital government system that strives to keep children safe,” Christian says.

Pennsylvania’s Task Force on Child Protection invited more than 60 experts to provide testimony during its public hearings, which explored children’s advocacy centers; mandatory child-abuse reporting; county-agency intake procedures, investigations and assessments; ChildLine, the statewide child-abuse hotline; data collection and confidentiality; and technology use in child welfare.

The first of the community-based events was held in the spring at Penn Law

Two of the 60 experts who provided testimony for the Task Force are a part of the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research: Wolfe and Richard J. Gelles.

Wolfe, a leader in child welfare for nearly 30 years, has an interdisciplinary background and national perspective. Her testimony was frequently cited throughout the final report.

“The task force was convened as the result of a particular tragedy, but it provided the opportunity to address even more substantive shortcomings in Pennsylvania’s child protection system,” Wolfe says.  “The Field Center had a significant role in recommended reforms.  Our analysis and proposed solutions offer new hope to child-abuse victims who previously fell through the cracks.”

“The Pennsylvania Task Force met a difficult and complex challenge,” explains Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice and a nationally recognized expert on child abuse and family violence.  “In the aftermath of the Sandusky case, it would be tempting to drastically expand the mandatory reporting statute and encourage more reporting of suspected abuse.  But, more reporting would not have increased the safety of children.”

The Task Force report opens with a quote from Gelles’ testimony:  “First and most important, measure all of your decisions and suggestions for legislative reform against the questions of whether a change or changes will improve the protection offered to vulnerable and dependent children.” 

Members of the Field Center suggested that the Task Force rewrite the child-abuse-reporting law so that it is victim-focused; mandate those who are closest to the incident with direct, firsthand knowledge of child abuse to report it directly, not just up the chain of command; eliminate the need to identify the perpetrator in order to substantiate child abuse; and redefine what constitutes child abuse.

“The definition of child abuse should neither be too broad nor too narrow,” Gelles explains.  “The Task Force’s decision to carefully refine the definition of maltreatment and improve the pathways through which reports are made will allow for better reporting and more focused attention to children at risk.”

“Our work is not done,” adds Christian.  “Moving ahead requires legislative action and I look forward to working with my colleagues at the Field Center to continue educating those whose responsibility it will be to make these recommendations law.”

The next steps include drafting legislation, evaluating potential policy changes and resource allocation, as well as identifying the kinds of funding that would be necessary to implement the Task Force’s suggested changes.

“This is an example of government at its best –- selecting the right people, soliciting input from leading experts, incorporating research and, most important, having the needs of child victims drive the process.  No stone was left unturned,” Wolfe says.  “This demonstrates how some of our nation’s greatest challenges can be addressed when the needs of the public are put front and center -- and partisan politics are put aside.”

What a difference a year makes.