|Posted:||January 13, 2021 12:30 PM|
|From:||Senator Timothy P. Kearney|
|To:||All Senate members|
|Subject:||Protecting Child Victims and Witnesses in Agency Administrative Proceedings|
|In the near future, I will re-introduce SB 980 of the 2019-2020 session, legislation to fix a serious oversight in our state agency administrative procedure that allows child abusers to confront and cross-examine their victims. Prior co-sponsors of SB 980 included Senators Brewster, Browne, Costa, Farnese, Fontana, Hughes, Killion, Muth, Phillips-Hill, Santarsiero, and Schwank.
As long as state agencies adhere to Title 2, Administrative Law and Procedure, they can generally create their own procedures for dealing with appeals of their decisions and findings. For instance, the Department of Human Services created its Bureau of Hearings and Appeals, which handles over 280 different types of cases, to hear appeals of orders given for its programs. This includes rendering legally sound adjudications for disputes regarding child abuse expunction, of which it overturns 46% of such disputes, according to Child Protective Services’ 2017 study. The appeals process through the Board of Hearings and Appeals differs substantively from judicial proceedings when it comes to protecting child victims from harm.
A glaring example of the need for this reform occurred recently in my senate district. After a 7-year old child indicated sexual abuse to health and social, the Department of Human Services charged the father with sexual abuse. The father immediately appealed the decision and, acting as his own attorney, was allowed to cross-examine his abused son. The Bureau of Hearings and Appeals did not allow the child’s mother or a child advocate in the hearing while the 7-year old child was questioned by his alleged abuser.
We already have protections for children involved in civil and criminal proceedings: the courts may assign child advocates and provide for alternative recording of a child’s testimony if testifying in front of the defendant or in an open court will cause emotional distress that will hinder communication. The same protections do not exist for agency administrative hearings such as those conducted by the Board of Hearings and Appeals.
This legislation would ensure that the same processes that work in our courts to both ensure due process and also protect children from harm and distress are applied to state administrative proceedings. A parent, guardian, attorney, court-appointed special advocate, or other person acting on behalf of the child would be able to petition the agency to provide a child advocate and consider alternative recording of testimony that ensure that the abuser will not address the child victim.
Please join me in ensuring uniform protection of victims of child abuse in Pennsylvania.