Fighting the good fight: Penn State Hershey uses IT to prevent child abuse

Dr. Benjamin Levi knows there’s power in information.

As director for the Center for the Protection of Children (CPC) at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Levi and his team are working on several technologies to help streamline and standardize child abuse reporting methods and intervention data organization.

“The center is in the process of improving methods old and new for gathering and storing information throughout the entire investigation process,” Levi explained. “From providing more information resources and a better way to report suspected abuse to designing a new database for tracking and analyzing data for children with suspected abuse, we’re developing innovative tools for our team to better help children.”

“The center is in the process of improving methods old and new for gathering and storing information throughout the entire investigation process. From providing more information resources and a better way to report suspected abuse to designing a new database for tracking and analyzing data for children with suspected abuse, we’re developing innovative tools for our team to better help children.”

— Benjamin Levi, director, Center for the Protection of Children, Penn State Hershey

To achieve its goals of preventing maltreatment, improving reporting rates, and providing the best care for children who have experienced abuse, the CPC — founded in December 2011 — is collaborating with Penn State information technology (IT) staff to build new digital assets.

Last year, the CPC reached out to the instructional designers in Teaching and Learning with Technology, a unit within Information Technology Services (ITS) at University Park, for support in designing a new e-learning program aimed at early childhood professionals throughout Pennsylvania called iLook Out for Child Abuse.

“Children ages birth through 4 are the most vulnerable to abuse,” Levi said. “And yet of the more than 26,000 reports of suspected abuse made in Pennsylvania last year, only 451 came from early childhood professionals — which suggests that many cases are being missed. iLook Out for Child Abuse focuses on early childhood professionals so that child care providers can be both informed and prepared to report maltreatment when there is ‘reasonable suspicion’ that a child may be being abused or neglected.”

The online training will consist of multimedia, interactive modules to help individuals identify risk factors and signs of abuse. The program will be available online through a learning management system and will be free.

It will also point users to the newly enhanced Pennsylvania Look Out for Child Abuse form, an online resource at www.reportsuspectedabuse.com for reporting suspected maltreatment of children. This innovative tool is designed to increase the efficiency and accuracy of information transfer to secure state databases. Eventually, it will be used to research reporting practices, using de-identified data, and to help improve standards for what is reported, how it is reported and how that information is processed.

John Soubik said this kind of improved communication is key in every step of the reporting and evaluation process. Soubik, a former county child welfare investigator and 1985 Penn State alumnus, presented the annual de Lissovoy lecture on child welfare at the University in October.

“It’s so important that people communicate at every step of an investigation,” Soubik said. “Reporting has to be accurate and meticulous notes have to be kept at every step. When I was an investigator, there was no centralized database and information could be easily lost. The new repository will be extremely helpful.”

“It’s so important that people communicate at every step of an investigation. Reporting has to be accurate and meticulous notes have to be kept at every step. When I was an investigator, there was no centralized database and information could be easily lost. The new repository will be extremely helpful.”

— John Soubik

Not only will the database help keep information secure and organized, but it will also aid in preventing abuse. Levi explained that as the repository grows, research will be done on patterns and demographics to help predict which children may be most at risk for abuse.

“If we look at our records and notice a particular family with multiple risk factors that has repeatedly brought in a young child for small issues, that might alert us that these are parents who are stressed and overwhelmed, for whom assistance could help prevent abuse” Levi said. “By better identifying patterns that indicate risk, we create opportunities to provide information and support that not only serves as a resource for parents, but could help them readjust expectations so that their frustration goes down, rather than escalating into abuse.”

As the CPC grows, it will continue to build on the strong foundation provided by Penn State Hershey and the University as a whole.

“The seeds we have planted are beginning to shoot up. But to grow to their potential and provide the canopy of protection we envision,” Levi said, “we need support. The work we are doing requires a team approach and resources that aren’t easy to come by. That’s our goal for the coming year — to garner the resources we need to do this well.”

“The seeds we have planted are beginning to shoot up. But to grow to their potential and provide the canopy of protection we envision, we need support. The work we are doing requires a team approach and resources that aren’t easy to come by. That’s our goal for the coming year — to garner the resources we need to do this well.”

— Benjamin Levi

The work of the CPC fits into the University’s larger initiative of increasing child abuse awareness generally. Within the Penn State community all students, faculty and staff have already completed University-based online training.

“There are cases that go undetected, which is why this kind of training is so important,” Levi said. “Once we have an even better idea of the true number of abuse cases, we’ll be able to make sure we have the resources for the necessary interventions. And when that happens, we’ll be able to measure — and increase — how effective those interventions are.”

As for Soubik, he understands the importance of having as much information as possible for an effective intervention — and despite the difficulties he faced as a child welfare investigation, he said that it was all worth it.

“It was a very challenging job because there was always the chance of making the wrong call without having all of the necessary information at your fingertips. It would have been terrible to not remove a child for lack of information and subject him or her to even more abuse or neglect, or to have someone falsely accused,” he said. “But the times I made a difference for the better in someone’s life were very gratifying and made it all worth it.”

And that’s a powerful thing.

To learn how to help the CPC, visit http://www.pennstatehershey.org/web/protection-of-children/home/donate.

To report suspected child abuse, go to http://www.pennstatehershey.org/web/protection-of-children/home/reporting.

For more stories about IT at Penn State, visit Current at http://current.it.psu.edu/.

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Last Updated March 11, 2014