With $7.7 million NIH grant, Penn State to become leader in child-abuse prevention

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Jennie Noll, a Penn State professor who specializes in the study of child sexual abuse, will lead a project from the National Institutes of Health to create the Center for Child Maltreatment Studies, expected to serve as a national model.

Pennsylvania State University, in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, set out to become a national leader in the study and prevention of child abuse.

This week, the state flagship university took a big step in that direction, garnering a $7.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to create the Center for Child Maltreatment Studies, expected to serve as a national model.

The grant, to be paid over five years, will allow a group of child-maltreatment experts brought on board by Penn State beginning in 2013 to embark on major research projects, including looking at health disparities among abused children and head trauma in children as a result of abuse. Penn State also will contribute $3.4 million to the effort, raising the total research dollars to $11 million.

“It’s going to allow us to do large-scale, very [cross-disciplinary] research to connect a lot of the dots in ways that we could not have done without these resources,” said Jennie Noll, a Penn State professor who specializes in the study of child sexual abuse and who will lead the project. “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.”

About two million children each year experience sexual or physical abuse or neglect in the United States, which can cause long-term mental, emotional, behavioral, and physical health problems, the university said.

More than 1,500 U.S. children die each year from child abuse. And about $124 million is spent annually on child maltreatment costs.

The researchers plan to conduct a study of 1,200 children, in the child protective system across Pennsylvania, looking to close health disparities among them. The effort, led by Christine Heim, professor of bio-behavioral health, will include health screenings, monitoring, and education in emotional and behavioral well-being and physical health. Noll said the group will seek to understand why some children fare better and to promote resilience among survivors.

In another project, they will use a new screening tool for child-abusive head trauma at eight pediatric intensive-care units across the country. That effort will be led by Kent P. Hymel, a child-abuse pediatrician at Penn State Children's Hospital. The tool could greatly improve the identification of children who suffer abusive head trauma and ward off further abuse, she said.

The center also will publish and promote its research findings among policymakers who can take action on the recommendations, Noll said. New legislation put in effect after the Sandusky case has made the state safer for children but also has put a burden on the child welfare system, she explained.

“We want to work with children and youth [agencies] to understand how these changes are impacting them, so we can put needed changes in front of policymakers,” Noll said.

Former Penn State president Rodney Erickson announced the university’s effort to target child abuse in 2012 when the school was still reeling from the fallout of the Sandusky scandal. The university at that time said it had planned to hire 12 professors who are experts in the field.

Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, was convicted of abusing young boys and is in prison. Several former Penn State administrators were accused of covering up Sandusky’s crimes and only in the last month have their cases been resolved. Former Penn State president Graham B. Spanier was convicted of one count of misdemeanor child endangerment and former athletic director Tim Curley and ex-vice president Gary Schultz both pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment.

Noll, a developmental psychologist who was hired in 2013, is a professor of human development and family studies and director of the university’s Child Maltreatment Solutions Network. Eight other experts also are on board across five colleges, and the university recently hired two others who will be coming, Noll said. One more will be hired, she said.

Penn State president Eric Barron said he was proud of the work that the network of researchers already has done and now will be poised to do and that Penn State kept its commitment.

“Sandusky was not Penn State,” Barron said. “Penn State made a commitment to focus on the research and education of the maltreatment of children, and made a statement that we were going to become one of the best. … It’s just become a model of excellence.”