It's the New Year, which means that new legislation relating to background checks and other types of protection is going into effect all over the country. In Pennsylvania, a package of 21 new pieces of childcare legislation went into effect on January 1st. The package of new laws will change and broaden the legal definition of child abuse in the state. It will also mandate background checks for school volunteers, a provision that was previously not on the books in the state's laws.
The 21 new pieces of legislation were all brainstormed and drafted by the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection. The task force was originally created in 2012, shortly after the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal became national news. According to a report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, though, Pennsylvania has long been a state with questionable safeguards against child abuse.
For one, the state has long held a definition of child abuse crimes that was different from other states. Specifically, the wording in the definition was more severe, and allegedly led to fewer child abuse reports in Pennsylvania than in most other states around the country. Legally, a child had to suffer "serious bodily injury" for a crime to be considered as child abuse.
The new legislation changes the wording of the definition, from "serious bodily injury" to "substantial bodily injury." Since the word "substantial" has a broader and less interpretive definition than "serious," the change should lead to more child abuse reports in the state.
The definition shift isn't the only change on the way designed to keep kids in Pennsylvania safer. Another new piece of legislation requires all school volunteers to undergo background checks. Previously, separate schools may have implemented their own volunteer screening policies, but none were ever legally required by the state.
A slight background check overhaul is on the way for teachers and other full-time or part-time school employees, as well. The change requires schools to update their employee background check clearances every 36 months. Previously, a teacher might go through one background check at hiring, and then never be expected to do so again. Now, all teachers will have to go through repeat background checks at least once every three years.
Individually, these changes would be substantial. Together, they should create a highly effective new model for preventing child abuse, or for bringing abusers to justice. The law that requires repeat background checks for teachers and school employees, meanwhile, will have positive and far-reaching effects that go beyond child abuse prevention. These repeat checks should be able to flag a wide array of possible offenses, from violent crimes to embezzlement, and keep school districts protected in more ways than one.