The drama that played out in the state House of Representatives two weeks ago contributes to advocates’ nervousness about possibly losing a golden opportunity to enact new protections for children. House lawmakers were slated to consider a bill to require sexual abuse awareness to be taught in the school health curriculum for students in grades K-8. State Rep. Mauree Gingrich, R-Cleona, sponsored the bill, which was poised for action.
Instead the legislation was iced. House Democrats tried to amend the bill with other unrelated education issues they wanted to advance. That likely killed the bill’s chances of making it into law this session.
Then the Democrats made a procedural move that angered House Republican leaders. House Democrats sought a vote on a resolution calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the state attorney general office’s handling of the Sandusky case. Corbett, the attorney general at the time, launched the investigation before he was elected governor. Democrats have complained that he handled the case too slowly.
Outraged by the resolution, House Republican leaders shut down the session. Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Protect Our Children Committee, a statewide coalition focused on child abuse issues, noted it’s not the first time politics has impeded efforts to protect kids.
The politically charged concerns over Corbett’s role in the Sandusky case almost derailed the House’s passage of the resolution to form the Task Force on Child Protection, she noted.
Given the deep polarization in Harrisburg, particularly in the state House, political scientist G. Terry Madonna said he understands the advocates’ concern. But he was quick to point out that politics gets played on both sides of the aisle in the General Assembly. And that contributes to the public perception that the Legislature is incapable of doing what most people think it should be doing. “I don’t see much in the way of changing that unless we get some leadership out of the governor’s office,” Madonna said.
“If he would call both sides together and sit down, that would help. … But you would think that leadership of both parties would be howling to get this done and sit down and work out sensible child protection laws.” Special interests also might be coming into play, Madonna said.
The Penn State connections to the Sandusky case might weigh on some legislators who don’t want to add further damage to the beleaguered university’s reputation, Madonna said. The Catholic Church and insurance company interests, who oppose legislation to alter the statute of limitations on child sex crime cases, also have been applying pressure on lawmakers, Salveson said.
“The people suffering here are children. The more they are mired in this political back and forth … the children are going unprotected,” said Tammy Lerner, who works with the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse.
Anxiety remains – The Task Force on Child Protection’s recommendations to strengthen the state’s child protection laws is due Nov. 30. So nothing can happen with the recommendations until the next legislative session begins in January.
The task force’s recommendations will be at the top of the administration’s legislative agenda for the next session, said Kevin Harley, Corbett’s press secretary. But advocates are concerned that given the Legislature’s performance this year, there’s no guarantee anything will happen.
“Given that kind of political divide, I think we’ll all be really holding our breath when next month the task force comes out with some potentially pretty comprehensive recommendations,” Palm said.
“Can you really get anywhere with them come January 2013, when there’s some thought that this politically benefits some folks to always put it through the lens of Jerry Sandusky and Tom Corbett? So I think we’re all nervous about it.” Harley offered a stern warning to lawmakers — House Democrats in particular — about allowing politics to squander the opportunity to improve child protection laws.
“We will not allow the House Democrats to play political games and stand in the way of protecting Pennsylvania’s children,” Harley said. “Every Pennsylvania child should receive the protection from harm they deserve.” Beverly Mackereth, a Department of Public Welfare deputy secretary and former state lawmaker from York County, is serving on the task force.
But she shares the worry that advocates have about politics stifling legislative action on the task force’s recommendations. “I just think it’s important that everybody remember that child abuse is not a political issue,” Mackereth said.
“It is a crime against children, and child protection is the responsibility of all adults,” she said. “So it’s our responsibility not to allow politics to get in the way of doing what’s right, and what’s going to make a difference in the lives of children and families in Pennsylvania.”
Outrage demands action – Legislative leaders or their spokesmen from both sides of the aisle vow to keep politics at bay when it comes to dealing with the task force’s recommendations. House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said the task force’s report will be helpful in pointing out where the problems lie with the state’s child protection laws and how they can be fixed.
“I don’t think politics will end up holding up some needed legislation. I’ll make sure of that, at least from my caucus,” he said. House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said the GOP’s goal in proposing the task force was to remove the issue from the hype surrounding the Sandusky investigation. The objective is to identify weaknesses in the law, he said.
If none of the task force’s recommendations make it into law, “that won’t be by our doing,” Miskin said. Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, said that panel’s work was critical to laying a solid foundation for what action the Legislature will consider next year.
“It would be unthinkable to me for people to play political games once we have this task force’s recommendations,” Arneson said. “The Sandusky investigation, the Sandusky trial and sentence, that is all behind us now. Hopefully members of the General Assembly will be able to rally in a bi-partisan way to improve Pennsylvania’s laws related to child protection,” Arneson said.
Angela Liddle, executive director of the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, a Harrisburg-based child welfare agency, said the politics surrounding Sandusky case can’t be ignored. But Liddle said she is optimistic that Pennsylvanians’ outrage over how the system failed the child victims will force action.
“They have been outraged at the gross breach of trust on so many levels and the life-altering damage done to those children-turned young men,” she said. “The citizens of this state will make sure our child protection policies and practices are improved. There will be no turning back on this one.”
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