Does child-abuse law loophole exempt medical profession from background checks?

Jerry Sandusky, convicted pedophile, is behind bars.

But the types of crimes he committed continue almost unabated.

“I can tell you our office deals with cases of child abuse every single day,” Lebanon County District Attorney Dave Arnold said. “Every single day our prosecutors and our detectives work on cases of child abuse and it’s absolutely heartbreaking.”

Since Sandusky, the Pennsylvania legislature passed two dozen new laws aimed at keeping kids safe. One of them requires more and more people to be mandated reporters.

But what should they be looking for? How do they report abuse if they suspect it?

The Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance will train those mandated reporters for free thanks to a five-year, $2.5 million state grant announced Wednesday at the Capitol.

“Indeed, it is a beautiful day in this neighborhood,” said Angela Liddle, President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, “and for each and every neighborhood throughout Pennsylvania where people will receive training and then, therefore, better protect Pennsylvania’s children.”

But in one regard it appears the onslaught of new laws had the unintended consequence of making kids less safe and created a huge gap in the fight against child abuse. The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services is advising doctors and medical personnel that they are no longer required to have criminal background checks.

“My head kind of spun around like Beetlejuice,” said Jason Kutulakis, who was on the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection that helped create many of those new laws.

He says it breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the law to exempt doctors and medical professionals.

“I’m completely mystified, Dennis,” Kutulakis said. “It’s an absurdity that anyone at the state level would draw that conclusion. I think it’s probably a misreading of the statute from some staffer at the Department of Human Services.”

No misread, according to Cathy Utz, who oversees Children and Youth for DHS. Utz says the law used to require medical personnel to have background checks. But she says when those laws were rewritten to expand requirements, it actually removed the clause that required clearances for physicians and medical professionals. Utz doesn’t know if the removal was intentional or unintentional but the bottom line according to DHS: the statute as currently written does not require medical personnel to have background checks.

Utz personally thinks that medical professionals should be required to have those checks but says a legislative fix is needed.

Kutulakis doesn’t agree with DHS’s interpretations but said even if it’s technically correct, it’s still wrong.

“Common sense, Dennis, quite frankly. We did not undergo this incredible statutory change that happened in 2014 to lessen the amount of people that have to have clearances. Our charge was to increase those that have to have clearances and medical personnel are one of the largest groups that come into contact with kids on a regular basis.”

Kutulakis points out that hospitals can, and do, require their employees to have background checks regardless the letter of the law.

“That’s the prudent and wise thing to do,” Kutulakis said.

According to DHS, 600,000 newly minted mandated reporters were trained last year.

For more information on the free training sessions by the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, visit their website at www.pa-fsa.org.

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