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With new resources, Delaware looks to crack down on child abuse

By Jim Malewitz, –

Delaware lawmakers hope that a new law will help the state crack down on child abuse.

Governor Jack Markell on Thursday (August 16) signed legislation aiming to boost Delaware’s ability to track such abuse — the culmination of more than two years of effort to close gaps in a system that enabled a prominent doctor to abuse children for years undetected.

“This bill further strengthens Delaware’s child protection network,” Markell said in a statement. “It is imperative that those involved in investigations or prosecutions of child abuse and neglect, including law enforcement, state agencies and the courts, communicate openly and share the information needed to protect children.”

Under the new law, officials at the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families (DSCYF) will track every case of child abuse reported to the state’s 24-hour abuse and neglect hotline. The law also creates a new position at the agency, a coordinator who will lead the tracking effort and report on trends and outcomes of child-abuse cases.

In the wake of the Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky scandal — when some University officials allegedly covered up dozens of sexual assaults over a 15-year period — lawmakers in many states have sought to strengthen laws aimed at detecting child abuse, particularly in the area of mandatory reporting.

Delaware’s attempt at reform was spurred by a different case of serial abuse that went unreported. Earl Bradley, a former pediatrician, was sentenced last year to life in prison in the sexual abuse of 103 child patients — some less than a year old — whom he raped, assaulted and exploited. Bradley was arrested in December 2009, 13 years after his coworkers at a Delaware hospital first complained about his practices.

Child welfare officials were never notified of the allegations, according to a state-commissioned report on the Bradley case, released in 2010. But the report also found that the DSCYF had a “hands off” policy when it came to investigating abuse happening outside of the family, “primarily because of the agency’s lack of resources.”

“A mass tragedy of this magnitude may have been pre-empted if the individuals directly involved had been alert, less willing to give Bradley the benefit of the doubt, and if they had scrupulously followed the law,” wrote Linda Ammons, Vice-Provost and Dean at Widener School of Law and the report’s author. “Systems were in place to catch a perpetrator, but they were either not properly assessed, or when called upon, human and mechanical error prevented the appropriate actions from being taken.”

Delaware’s new law is based on recommendations from Ammons’ report.

“The changes we’re making with this law are going to make it harder for cases of child abuse and neglect to fall through cracks in the system,” said Patricia Blevens, Delaware’s Senate majority leader and sponsor of the legislation. “By doing that, we’re going to make it easier to intervene to protect children whose health and lives might otherwise be at risk.”

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