HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A new research program at Penn State aims to improve the health of neglected and abused children and test an innovative approach to screen kids for head injuries.
Penn State said Tuesday it will establish the Center for Healthy Children at its main campus, supported by nearly $8 million from the National Institutes for Health. The university is putting in more than $3 million.
The program will supplement the university’s Child Maltreatment Solutions Network , established in response to the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. The network will continue its work in education and outreach, while the new money will be purely for research.
Penn State said that besides trying to improve children’s health, the center will work to advocate changes to law and government policy and to expand research in the field.
“If we don’t prevent child maltreatment, we’re going to see these kids in all kinds of systems, like juvenile justice or Medicaid, where these health disparities lead these kids to,” said Jennie Noll, a human development and family studies professor at Penn State who heads the network and is the federal grant’s principle investigator.
Abused children as a group tend to have more problems with a range of health issues, Noll said, including obesity, sexually transmitted disease, teen pregnancy, depression and anxiety.
Over four years, Penn State will bring 1,200 children ages 8-13 and their families to a facility overlooking the Old Main lawn in the center of campus. The children will be evaluated, provided referrals for untreated issues and given information on diet, exercise and other health strategies. They will return every two years for follow-up research.
Noll said stress and maltreatment in childhood clearly have a negative impact on behavioral and physical health, so researchers hope to learn more about why some children are more negatively affected while others show remarkable resistance to abusive conditions.
“That’s going to help us design novel interventions that can improve the health and well-being of kids in the child welfare system,” Noll said.
Another research project will involve testing a new screening method for abusive head trauma at eight pediatric intensive care facilities across the country. It will be led by Dr. Kent Hymel, a child abuse pediatrician at Penn State Children’s Hospital in Hershey.
“I think it’s a great day for the children of Pennsylvania,” said Angela Liddle, chief executive of the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance , which works to prevent child abuse. “What I hope happens with this is that it also moves into stronger training and education for those individuals who work with families in prevention ways, in preventative measures.”
Penn State made battling child abuse an institutional priority after Sandusky’s arrest and 2012 conviction on charges he abused 10 boys, some on campus. As the university’s retired longtime football defensive coach, authorities said, Sandusky used his connection with the university’s storied football program to impress and groom some of his victims.
University President Eric Barron said the grant was “a statement that we went from a tragedy to being the national center to address child maltreatment research and training.”
Sandusky is serving 30 to 60 years in prison but maintains he’s innocent and is pursuing appeals.
Three men who held high-ranking jobs at the university are awaiting sentencing for child endangerment because of how they responded to a 2001 complaint about Sandusky: former president Graham Spanier, former vice president Gary Schultz and former athletic director Tim Curley. All three denied they were told that an encounter between Sandusky and a boy in a shower was sexual in nature.
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