Penn State Efforts to Study Child Abuse After Sandusky

While riding a taxi to a job interview last year at Pennsylvania State University, the cabbie casually asked Jennie Noll what brought her to State College. When she told him she specialized in child-sexual abuse research, his response was quick:

"You'd better figure this out," he told her, explaining that he had had fewer riders since the Sandusky scandal, and worse could be coming.

"It felt like a traumatized community to me," Noll told The Philadelphia Inquirer last month. "It just shows you the far-reaching consequences of child abuse."

The developmental psychologist now serves in a pivotal role in the university's burgeoning effort to become a national leader in the study and prevention of child abuse, an undertaking resulting from the scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Noll, who started in September as director of research and education for the study and prevention of child abuse, is one of five experts the university has hired, with at least nine more to come.

The 48-year-old became interested in helping traumatized children while growing up in Castle Rock, Colo. Her mother served on a child-protection team and sometimes gave temporary shelter to children in crisis.

"I would wake up in the morning sometimes, and next to me on my trundle bed would be a child that my mom brought home," she said. "Sometimes I was the one to reach the child, comb her hair, or make her feel not so scared. That felt like really important work to me."

Noll has been working to protect children since then. She has been a principal investigator since 1995 in an ongoing study of nearly 200 women from the Washington area, each of whom was sexually abused at age 10.

Noll is helping with Penn State's staffing effort, which will span various disciplines, four colleges, and six departments at the flagship state university. The new researchers and faculty will study the far-reaching impact on the victims of child trauma, including premature aging, accelerated rates of disease, and higher rates of risk behaviors such as drug use.

The researchers will explore detection, treatment, prevention, and education.

"Penn State has grieved, but we've pulled together to try to make something positive and large out of this tragedy," said Karen L. Bierman, a psychology professor and director of the Child Study Center.

Others hired include:

Lori D. Frasier, a physician, head of the new division of Child Abuse Pediatrics at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital. She chairs the American Board of Pediatrics' sub-board on child abuse pediatrics.

Idan Shalev, a postdoctoral associate in psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. He will start in January as an assistant professor of biobehavioral health. His work has explored how trauma alters DNA and accelerates aging.

Kent Hymel, a physician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. He will start at Penn State-Hershey in March. He teaches pediatricians and other practitioners how to spot and diagnose abuse and works with abuse survivors.

Chad Shenk, an assistant professor of human development and family studies. He started this fall. He studies the long-term psychological implications of child abuse and the best treatment to help children and their families.

Seven more searches are underway, two in psychology and others in biobehavioral health; sociology and criminology; human development and family studies; education; and pediatrics. The positions have not attracted tons of applications because the field is small.

"It's more like you make a call and someone says, 'You have to get this person,' " said Susan McHale, director of Penn State's Social Science Research Institute and professor of human development.

In the fallout of the Sandusky scandal, Penn State forced out top leaders, suffered unprecedented sanctions against its storied football program, and paid nearly $60 million to settle civil suits with 26 victims.

A faculty stunned that a child predator had roamed the campus undeterred for years grappled with a way to help.

In January 2012, more than 30 faculty from various schools and programs met to brainstorm.

"It was horrifying, especially for many of us who spent our career working on behalf of children," McHale said. "Everything we thought Penn State stood for was violated by this one man who got away with what he did."

Bierman said the case illustrated the need for an effort to dig more deeply into child abuse: "This whole episode shows how challenging it is to spot, to take action and prevent."

The group held a national conference in October 2012 and another this year. It established the "Network on Child Protection and Well-Being," drawing on the expertise of about 400 faculty who deal with children and families. And it got approval for the hires, which when completed will constitute perhaps the largest concentration of experts in the child maltreatment field.

Although she will begin teaching at Penn State in the spring, Noll will continue her ongoing research. Last month, she trained people to begin reinterviewing the Washington women from the long-term study. She has looked at how the women's lives have unfolded and published findings on their higher rate of chronic health problems, such as diabetes and obesity. Noll and her partners are about to take another snapshot of the women and their offspring, 30 years since the abuse.

When the Penn State opportunity arose, Noll was director of research for the division of behavioral medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.

"I was incredibly intrigued," she said. "There has never been this kind of effort in my field to actually coordinate the hiring of experts in child maltreatment in an interdisciplinary way, with research focused on connecting the dots between abuse and why these things happen and then filling in the gaps. What have we not studied yet that if we studied would benefit victims and their families?"

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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