As the holiday season quickly approaches, hordes of children and parents will flock to malls across Pennsylvania for the obligatory visit with Santa. This year, however, the neighborhood Santa will be required to submit to a more rigorous background check prior to listening to the gift lists of the children who stand in line for a chance to sit on the jolly man’s knee.
In the wake of Jerry Sandusky’s trial in 2011, Pennsylvania’s House and Senate took significant steps to update and refine the Commonwealth’s child protection laws in an effort to address the law’s shortcomings. In late 2014, the state government enacted significant amendments, many of which are now in effect, that expanded the definitions of child abuse and “mandatory reporter”, required a new reporting process for suspected child abuse, mandated criminal background checks for volunteers in regular contact with children and set forth mandatory child abuse identification training for certain individuals.
Under the amended law, a mandated reporter is a person who deals closely with children and is required to make a report of suspected child abuse. Examples of mandatory reporters include: teachers, healthcare providers, coaches, day care providers, clergy members and certain individuals, such as massage therapists, who hold licenses through the PA Department of State. Additionally, many mandated reporters are required to undergo child abuse detection training, which is typically offered through the individual’s employer, such as a school or hospital.
If a mandated reporter suspects that a child is being abused, the new law requires that the reporter immediately call the Commonwealth’s abuse hotline, ChildLine, and submit a written report to the department that is assigned to handle the report. The new law no longer requires mandated reporters to go through a supervisor to report suspected abuse – the reporter now submits his or her own report. If a mandated reporter fails to comply with the two step process, the individual could be criminally charged for and convicted of a misdemeanor, or in some cases a felony. Due to the severity of the consequences, it is imperative that individuals and institutions understand who is considered to be a mandated reporter.
One of the biggest changes coming out of the new law relates to the background checks and certifications required for volunteers having direct contact with children. Let’s say you want to coach your child’s little league team or regularly participate as a helper in your child’s class. Prior to volunteering, you must now obtain a Pennsylvania State Police background check. If you’re new to the state within the last 10 years and have not obtained an FBI certification since establishing residency, you will need to be finger-printed and certified by the federal government as well for a small fee.
Individuals, schools and professionals are now under greater scrutiny to identify and report suspected child abuse or potentially face criminal charges and it is imperative to know what your responsibilities are as a member of your community.