Grant creates first national center for child maltreatment studies at Penn State

Roughly 2 million children experience maltreatment each year in the United States and face the possibility of a lifetime of mental, emotional, behavioral and physical health difficulties. With more than $124 billion spent in the U.S. on child maltreatment-related costs, the importance of mitigating damaging outcomes for victims cannot be overstated. There is a critical need for new research to identify health and developmental solutions, mobilize public investment in child maltreatment prevention and treatment, accelerate science to practice, and spark dynamic system-wide change.

Recognizing this importance, The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the NICHD, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently completed a competitive process to fund for the first time ever, an academic institution to function as a “Capstone.” Penn State has been selected based on scientific merit to establish the Center for Healthy Children. The award of $7.7 million will support the center as a national resource for child maltreatment research and training. To further this effort, Penn State has committed $3.4 million in funds, to total more than $11 million.

“Maltreatment is a critical issue requiring tangible solutions. There needs to be a heightened focus on raising the bar for research in this area so we can develop specific ways to prevent maltreatment and promote health and well-being for survivors,” said Jennie Noll, the principal investigator of the NIH award, professor of human development and family studies in Penn State's College of Health and Human Development, and director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, a unit of Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute. “We don't yet have a comprehensive understanding of exactly why maltreatment leads to such dire consequences for some, while others may exhibit remarkable resilience. This is why it is vitally important that we identify the mechanisms involved in these health disparities."

The knowledge generated by this research will allow scientists, in conjunction with advocates and practitioners, to develop and implement novel, targeted and optimized interventions that will maximize the ability to impact lives and have relevance nationwide and throughout the world.

This grant is a direct outgrowth of an initial investment Penn State made in 2012 to create and support a network of researchers who have since come together at the University to solve the complex problem of child maltreatment. Through this investment, the network hired nine faculty members across five colleges, each working from distinct, yet complementary, angles in a highly unique trans-disciplinary effort.

“We recruited the best and the brightest researchers to Penn State to create a network and we continue our commitment to work on this critical issue by contributing $3.4 million in support of the new NIH center,” said Penn State President Eric J. Barron. “The expertise, passion and dedication of our researchers are unparalleled and this grant exemplifies our strength in successful interdisciplinary collaborations, with leading experts from across the University.”

The grant was established to fund cutting-edge research that focuses on child maltreatment and offers practical suggestions for preventative measures and legislative recommendations that can spur legislative action. In one of the research projects, Noll and her team will invite approximately 1,200 children aged 8-13 from around the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to participate in a study focused on eradicating health disparities for children who have experienced the child welfare system. This large cohort study led by Christine Heim, professor of bio-behavioral health at Penn State, will include health screenings, monitoring and education in the areas of emotional and behavioral well-being as well as physical health.

Another research project supported by the grant will be led by Dr. Kent P. Hymel, a child abuse pediatrician at Penn State Children’s Hospital. Eight pediatric intensive care units from across the country will participate in a randomized clinical trial designed to assess the impact of a novel, highly sensitive, screening tool for pediatric abusive head trauma. More than 1,500 U.S. children die annually from child abuse, a number similar to the mortality rate from all forms of pediatric cancer combined. Approximately 40 percent of child maltreatment deaths result from abusive head trauma. For the first time in any clinical setting, physicians will apply a recently validated screening tool to guide their decisions to launch or forgo child abuse evaluations in their young, acutely head-injured patients. By improving the accuracy of these difficult clinical decisions, implementing the screening tool could substantially reduce cases of missed or misdiagnosed abusive head trauma, unnecessary abuse evaluations, abusive re-injury and death.

The overarching goal of the center is to translate research into solutions that can enhance how the child welfare system supports families. Moreover, the center grant also supports a team, led by Max Crowley, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, who will translate knowledge generated by the center's researchers into policy briefs and messages that will resonate with policy makers regarding the fiscal costs of maltreatment and its consequences, to implore larger public investment in prevention and treatment. In a unique partnership between children and youth organizations and University researchers, this team will work in conjunction with Pennsylvania’s child welfare system to address pressing questions that are important to frontline social workers and administrators.

“It is an incredible honor to be selected by the NIH as an organization that has the capabilities to make a tangible impact on the lives of children,” said Noll. “I’m inspired to be working with this incredibly talented group of world-renowned researchers as we forge this vital path ahead.”

In addition to the new support from the NIH and continued support from the University, the center will be given dedicated space provided by the College of Health and Human Development on Penn State’s University Park campus.

Researchers working with Noll on this project include Max Crowley, assistant professor of human development and family studies; Christine Heim, professor of biobehavioral health; Kent Hymel, child abuse pediatrician; Diana Fishbein, professor of human development and family studies and director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Center; Sarah Font, assistant professor of sociology; Sheridan Miyamoto, assistant professor of nursing; Chad Shenk, assistant professor of human development and family studies; Idan Shalev, assistant professor of biobehavioral health; Hannah Schreirer, assistant professor of biobehavioral health; Emma Rose, research assistant professor, Prevention Research Center; Vernon Chinchilli, Distinguished Professor of Public Health Sciences; Mark Dias, associate professor of neurosurgery; and Ming Wang, assistant professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics.