New Penn State program will train next generation of child maltreatment scholars

Child maltreatment is a significant health issue, affecting more than 12% of children in the U.S. by the time they reach age 18, and is associated with a myriad of behavioral, emotional, and physical health problems for survivors.

Researchers in Penn State’s Child Maltreatment Solutions Network were recently awarded a $3.5 million, five-year training grant to develop the nation’s first training program for child maltreatment professionals to help combat this complex issue.

The program, funded by NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development along with Penn State matching funds, will establish a comprehensive training program that will prepare trainees to be leaders in the field.

According to Yo Jackson, associate director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network and director of training for the program, child maltreatment (sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect) not only affects the victim and their family, it also affects society as a whole, costing close to $1 billion each year. 

“We struggle to move the field forward, because don’t have expertise working together,” said Jackson. “Child maltreatment involves research and training in social welfare, psychology, human development, neuroscience, sociology, medicine, and law among other disciplines, making a comprehensive training model impractical to date.”

However, Penn State is in a unique position to be able to design an effective child maltreatment training model. The Child Maltreatment Solutions Network was established in 2013, and was awarded the nation’s first ever NICHD P50 Capstone Center of Excellence in Child Maltreatment Research and Training in 2017.

“Through these two initiatives, Penn State already has a transdisciplinary team of researchers in place to combat the complex problem of child maltreatment across five colleges, including Health & Human Development, Education, Liberal Arts, Nursing, and Medicine,” Jackson said.

Jennie Noll, who heads up both the Solutions Network and P50 Capstone Center initiatives, is also the training program’s director of research.

“Child maltreatment training has been siloed within isolated disciplines. Children and families at risk for, or experiencing, child abuse and neglect are dealing with a host of complex issues thus requiring a multidisciplinary approach to adequate support. The lack of well-trained specialists can work cross different disciplines is sorely needed if we are to move the needle, but now have more child maltreatment experts at Penn State than anywhere else. We are in a prime position to inspire the next generation of scholars who will follow in our footsteps.”

Specifically, the training program will train fellows in the biological embedding of stress, the impact of child maltreatment on developmental processes, prevention and treatment, and policy, administrative data, and systems research. Students will choose their primary and secondary areas of training, but will be exposed to all the areas via classes, research labs, conferences, seminars and immersion experiences.

Beginning in the Fall of 2020, training fellows will also participate in ongoing academic research projects, incorporating experiences in research ethics, innovative child maltreatment science methods, community engagement, and translation of policy so that trainees will be in the best possible position to effectively contribute to advancing the science.

Participating faculty have extensive experience in all facets of the child maltreatment sciences, from the basic science of stress physiology to population level, administrative data and policy-relevant studies.

“Our faculty team is fantastic — outstandingly productive and successful. Fellows will thus have a very rich environment, and the result will be more experienced scholars, well-versed in all the issues of child maltreatment,” said Jackson.

Faculty partners serve as primary and secondary mentors and span five colleges from Penn State and Penn State Hershey. Co-investigators will take the lead for training in tracks that represent their substantive expertise and include: Christian Connell, associate professor of human development and family studies (policy, administrative data and systems research); Chad Shenk, associate professor of human development and family studies (prevention and treatment); Erika Lunkenheimer, associate professor of psychology (developmental processes); and Hannah Schreier, assistant professor of biobehavioral health (biological embedding). All of the investigators along with Jackson and Noll are cofunded faculty members of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, part of the Social Sciences Research Institute.