Too Often, It Takes Pain to Produce Real Change

December 18, 2013

By Angela Liddle


The holiday season is upon us, and somewhere in that whirl of shopping, cards and social gatherings, we reflect on the year that is ending, and what the future holds. No sooner will the gifts be unwrapped than talk will turn to the infamous New Year’s resolutions. I’ve long been intrigued by what motivates us mere mortals to address issues in our lives and bring about needed changes. We usually think of the biggies: weight loss, exercise, patching up a rift with a relative or friend. I am not Pollyanna enough to think that a date on the calendar has any significant impact. For me, tackling significant change has always taken anaconda-sized pain: divorce, death of a spouse, illness, the standard make- your-knees-buckle type of event.  While I would like to think I am unique in all kinds of ways, the truth is I am really pretty average, especially with the “change” issue. 

Take for instance the Sandusky scandal. Yes, more than two years since it first started to flood our media outlets, we are still talking about Sandusky. Why?  Because it was anaconda in size, as were the ripples of pain it sent through our state. Its impact is still being felt, and in a systemic change sort of way. For decades, professionals working in the child welfare system have known the weak spots in our Child Protective Services Law, and they’ve heard of stories, albeit, on a smaller scale, that held similarities to those comprising the Sandusky scandal. But change didn’t come. We all talked from time to time about the need for change, we even shook our heads in a silent resigned sort of way. But then came the anaconda and after a very long, thorough process, change is happening for Pennsylvania’s kids.

Hats off to legislative leadership in the 2013-2014 Session for their work to strengthen the state’s child abuse protection laws. Five bills received unanimous votes in the state Senate this week and now move to the desk of Gov. Corbett for signature. To highlight just a few ways we have improved the protection of our children, these bills seek to:

  • Broaden the definition of people who can be considered a child abuser and subsequently listed on a state registry and keep them out of employment settings with children.
  • Provide protection to reporters, witnesses and victims of child abuse by making retaliation a crime.
  • Provide changes to the crimes of simple assault and aggravated assault that lower the age of a perpetrator from 21 years to 18 years for the offense to be graded as a misdemeanor of the first degree when the simple assault is against a child.
  • Strengthen language concerning investigations to ensure investigations are handled uniformly across the Commonwealth. 
  • Amend the Professional Educators Discipline Act to close a reporting loophole by requiring any educator who knows of sexual abuse or misconduct of a student by a certified school employee to make a report to the Department of Education and inform the person in charge.

Part of this well-orchestrated process was a close look at how we educate the professionals in our Commonwealth who interact with children to recognize and report child abuse. The result was improved legislation that will broaden the definition of who is a mandated reporter and a strengthening of training requirements. That legislation still awaits final passage. We know that the child welfare system cannot respond and protect kids until the proverbial “bell” is rung and the “bell” is a report of suspected child abuse, made to police or child welfare officials. The vast majority of reports are made by mandated reporters, hence, it is critically important that in this historic time of change the good work must be completed by enacting this portion of the package as soon as possible.

The victims of the Sandusky scandal are too numerous to count and the impact immeasurable. The pain has been anaconda in size; our legislators, child welfare professionals and advocates have responded with anaconda-sized, system-wide improvements in a spirit of collegiality I’ve not seen before in my career. Let’s hope we’ve learned a few things along the way. For sure, we’ve all been very late in arriving at the game and the kids have deserved more and better for a very long time.