Penn State gets $7.7 million grant to "raise the bar" on child abuse-related research

By Charles Thompson |

Penn State officials committed to taking a leading edge position in the fight against child abuse in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

On Tuesday, the university announced that its efforts in that regard have received a significant recognition - and a financial boost - from a national partner.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, awarded Penn State a $7.7 million grant to help create a new Center for Healthy Children.

The Center is to be focused on "raising the bar for research" on all forms of child abuse in the hopes of eventually pointing to a better set of responses, treatments and long-term outcomes for victims.

NIH leaders said the goal of the five-year grant is to address a problem that has long vexed those in the child welfare field:

Why are some abuse victims able to rise above their early adversity and thrive as adults, while others suffer from long-term physical and emotional problems? Are there treatment or other response keys that are important factors?

Certainly, political and program leaders have advanced all kinds of policy solutions.

But, Dr. Valerie Maholmes of the NICHD told PennLive Tuesday, researchers have to catch up.

Maholmes, chief of the institute's Pediatric Trauma and Critical Illness Branch, said one of its primary priorities is taking this vastly understudied area of child development to another level, hopefully to create better responses that more consistently leads victimized kids to positive outcomes.

The grant itself represented a positive outcome for Penn State, which President Eric Barron has committed an additional $3.4 million in university funding in support of the center, which will be based in State College.

There, the NIH selection - following a competitive, peer-reviewed process - was celebrated in part as another example of the university forging a better path in the wake of Sandusky's arrest and conviction as a serial child molester.

Sandusky was convicted in 2012 of sexually abusing 10 different boys between 1994 and 2008, and a subsequent civil mediation process led by Penn State has suggested that he molested 32 boys in all, dating to the 1970s.

Penn State, shortly after Sandusky's conviction, committed resources to a cluster hiring of faculty members to attack child abuse-related issues.

To date, it has hired nine faculty members across the colleges of Health and Human Development, Education, Nursing, Liberal Arts and Medicine, established a minor in child maltreatment and advocacy studies, and launched an annual conference to children and family issues.

The university also maintains a $12 million endowment - it's slice of the $60 million fine originally levied by the NCAA in 2012 - to help sustain those programs.

Now, said Jennie Noll, a professor of human development and family studies and director of the university's existing Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, Penn State has a chance to match an enhanced research potentional to its existing education and outreach efforts.

"This is the payoff of that (initial) investment," Noll said. "If that investment hadn't been real, then this wouldn't have happened."

There are two principal projects to be fully-funded by the federal grant:

  • A longitudinal study tracking progress of 1,200 Pennsylvania youth in the child welfare system, and measuring their outcomes against the services they received and how they were delivered.
  • A national test of a new diagnostic tool for children with severe head injuries designed to help doctors differentiate between potential abuse cases and accidental injuries. To be tested at eight pediatric intensive care units across the country, the goal is to help reduce the number of missed diagnoses in either direction.

A third leg of the new grant, Noll said, will be shorter term demonstration projects aimed at helping front-line child welfare workers better make the case at the federal and state levels for funding and other high-need resources.

That could be especially important in a state like Pennsylvania, she noted, where the General Assembly dramatically enhanced child protection laws after the Sandusky scandal, but has largely left local agencies scrambling to catch up to the new demands for service.

After the first five years, Maholmes said, Penn State will have the opportunity to compete for a second round of funding.

The problems of child abuse, unfortunately, are pretty well-defined.

According to NIH data, each year more than 2 million children are subjected to physical, emotional or sexual abuse or neglect.

About 1,500 of those children die in the average year, a number similar to the mortality rates from pediatric cancers. Treatment and placement of the survivors exceeds $120 billion.

Now Penn State, which so unintentionally shined such a bright light on aspects of those problems across Pennsylvania, gets to become a major player in the national effort to combat it.