Child welfare specialists have ideas for use of Penn State fines
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The child welfare community is abuzz with questions about the $60 million pot of money -- $12 million a year for five years -- that is supposed to come out of the Penn State University scandal to fund prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse.
Who will decide on the money's distribution, based on what criteria? Will it expand existing programs or create new ones? How will the funder ensure it is being used to maximum effect? What, if any, strings will be attached?
"The money represents a solid opportunity if there's real thought about how to get the most effective bang for the buck," said Cathleen Palm, who runs the Protect Our Children Committee, a statewide coalition of child advocates that got state government to create a child protection task force in December in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Many areas could benefit from additional resources -- prevention, reporting, intervention, child advocacy, law enforcement, system accountability, reducing the waiting lists for treatment, public education and awareness.
But the best approach, in Ms. Palm's view, would target core benchmarks rather than spreading the money too thinly over a broad spectrum and winding up with little to show for the investment.
Her own preference would be to beef up proven family-strengthening programs, in-school education on healthy relationships and public awareness campaigns that promote adult responsibility vs. children having to protect themselves.
"Historically, kids are the ones who have to say no," she said. "We need a cultural change where adults step in and stop abuse so we don't put the burden on the child."
Shauna Spencer, director of Family Resources, which provides prevention and treatment services in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties agreed that more and better public education should encourage adults to exercise their responsibility, and there should be clear support for adults who report, she said.
Jamie Mesar, who manages the Child Advocacy Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, would like to see more resources for organizations like hers that guide victims through the system. Their interview staff, trained to elicit information without leading questions, pulls together child protective services, law enforcement, victim services and the courts so that a child is interviewed one time rather than repeatedly, which decreases the trauma.
"Organizations that deal with child abuse are looking for money on a daily basis," Ms. Mesar said. Training is an ongoing and sometimes expensive effort, she said. So is community outreach that educates about abuse and lets people know the agencies that can help.
"We don't need to create new programs," she said. "It makes more sense to expand what already exists."
On the front end of prevention, Ms. Palm said, home visiting programs such as Nurse Family Partnerships, get very good results in Allegheny County and across the state. Nurses visit first-time, high-risk mothers to teach them about child development and how to nurture and protect a child.
School-based programs that emphasize healthy development, interaction and relationships are also effective, she said.
Other possibilities would be working with children's programs such as the now-defunct Second Mile, founded by Mr. Sandusky whose predation went undetected for years, so they know what to look for inside their own ranks.
"Organizations that deal directly with children need to limit one-on-one interaction between adults and children," Ms. Palm said.
She added that they also should look at where a child could be victimized in hidden places where no one will see.
Improved investigation is needed, Ms. Palm said, but might not be the best use of the Penn State dollars because it has to be an ongoing process. More effective would be minimizing the waiting list for child victims who must delay getting needed counseling and therapy because of limited funding.
Also needed is system accountability so that victims and families have somewhere to go when first-line authorities drop the ball.
"Pennsylvania has no independent way to monitor the system," Ms. Palm said. "In 1998, when a mom [of a Sandusky victim] felt the investigation was not effective, she had nowhere else to turn. With or without these dollars, the state needs an independent way to provide quality assurance of the system that deals with child sexual abuse."
She added that the disconnected or silo approach to child services hinders meaningful progress.
"Pennsylvania has a ton of good stuff going on but we're not good at the connector tissue that makes for systemic change."
First Published July 29, 2012 12:00 am