Penn State Launches National Center for Child Maltreatment Research

Through an extremely competitive review process, scientific merit, which requires that the problems being investigated are considered valuable to the larger scientific community, was the criteria by which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) granted Pennsylvania State University (PSU) $7.7 million to develop and construct a national center for child maltreatment research — marking the first time NIH has awarded a grant to an academic institution in this way.*

The facility, named the PSU Center for Healthy Children, will focus on preventing, detecting and treating child abuse, and will be housed at PSU’s University Park Campus’s College of Health and Human Development. It will also instruct the next generation of both scientists and advocates in the field.

PSU invested in the creation and support of a network of researchers at University Park and Hershey College of Medicine in 2012 called the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, acknowledging the need to serve the roughly two million children who experience maltreatment in the United States each year. The network has since become one of the largest clusters of maltreatment researchers in the world, according to Eric J. Barron, president of Penn State University.

“The expertise, passion and dedication of our researchers are unparalleled and this grant exemplifies our strength in successful interdisciplinary collaborations, with leading experts from across the university,” Barron said in a press release.

PSU allocated over $3 million in matching funds, garnering a total of more than $11 million to invest in the center’s research efforts. The new center is poised to begin two research projects.

The first, led by the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network director and professor of Human Development and Family Studies at PSU’s College of Health and Human Development, Jennie Noll, will solicit approximately 1,200 youth aged 8-13 from across Pennsylvania and concentrate on eliminating health disparities impacting children who have experienced the child welfare system. It will include health screenings, educational components, and monitoring of areas of emotional, behavioral, and physical health and well-being.

The second project will be led by a child abuse pediatrician from PSU’s Children’s Hospital, Dr. Kent P. Hymel, and will see participation from eight pediatric intensive care units from across the country. The research will implement randomized clinical trials that have been designed to evaluate the use of a screening tool for abusive head trauma resulting in 40 percent of child abuse deaths. Its results will serve to improve missed or misdiagnosed abusive head trauma, unnecessary abuse evaluations and death.

Additionally, the center will offer legislative suggestions to enhance the child welfare system through policy briefs on the costs and consequences of maltreatment led by Max Crowley, assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies at PSU. Rendering solutions from the research collected at the center, a partnership between university researchers and child youth organizations will work with the state’s child welfare system to address the ways the system can be strengthened to better support families.

*CORRECTION: The original version of this story stated that the Penn State center was the first of its kind, in accordance with the press release; however, it is the National Institutes of Health’s move to fund an academic institution to function as a “capstone” that is happening for the first time.

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Sable is a student currently residing in Los Angeles. She's an enthusiast of all things creative and performing arts and interns for The Chronicle of Social Change.