Push to expand definition of child abuse

    Pennsylvania lawmakers and child advocates are debating a proposal to expand the definition of child abuse.

    Doctors are required by law to report child abuse. But right now, when an infant is born with illicit drugs in her system, it’s not clear whether that exposure rises to the level of abuse.

    Cumberland County State Senator Pat Vance authored a bill that would hold moms responsible if a newborn tests positive for a controlled substance, unless the mother was prescribed the drug lawfully.

    Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz, who leads the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, says the proposal is laudable, but lawmakers and law enforcement are still weighing its consequences.

    “We want to make sure that it’s not going to be a piece of legislation that’s going to maybe have a negative impact on pregnant women,” he said. “We would never want a situation where mothers are not seeking the proper prenatal care because they’ve taken some drugs, and they are afraid of what’s going to happen to them.”

    Jenna Mehnert leads the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. She says the issue is complicated because social workers are concerned both with the safety of children and about helping adults manage substance abuse problems.

    Mehnert says the Commonwealth has a higher standard, compared to other states, when it comes to proving child abuse.

    “There are cases that you or I, the average person, would look at and say, ‘That’s child abuse.’ And, in fact, in many other states it would be considered child abuse in Pennsylvania,” she said.

    Schultz and Mehnert are testifying Friday, Aug. 26 during a Pennsylvania senate committee hearing on the issue.

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