Conference helps ‘bridge the gaps’ in the field of child protection

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- “Thanks to many of the people in this room, we’ve done more things in the past 40 years for child protection than the previous 4,000," said Charles Wilson, senior director of the Chadwick Center for Children and Families at Penn State's third annual Conference on Child Protection and Well-Being.

Wilson featured among an impressive line-up of speakers at the conference, held May 5 and 6 at University Park, emphasized that the field is on the right track, but it needs to do more and everyone must work together to make it happen.

About 200 researchers, practitioners and students filled the Nittany Lion Inn Ballroom for what was the third in an annual series of conferences organized by Penn State’s Network on Child Protection and Well-Being. Attendees heard presentations on cutting-edge research, evidence-based intervention programs and commentary on the challenges of building strong and safe families for children to thrive. Child abuse and neglect affects millions of children every year. Speakers discussed the need for researchers, policy-makers and communities to address the issue from multiple perspectives.

“All too frequently, maltreated children experience more than one type of abuse,” Sherry Hamby, professor of psychology at Sewanee: University of the South, said. Hamby runs the Life Paths program, which teaches people how to develop personal strengths and cope with adversity.

She said there are about 40 different types of victimization, but researchers who study one type of abuse, such as sexual abuse, frequently do not communicate as effectively as they should with researchers who study other types of abuse, such as physical abuse or neglect. Poly-victimization is difficult to study but nevertheless is the reality for many maltreated children. Hamby argued that, “a more comprehensive framework is needed to better understand the web of violence that many children are exposed to … a framework that can guide research and treatment.”

Bridging gaps between areas was a goal the conference speakers shared. Each stressed the importance of translational science — applying research to real-world problems and disseminating what is known from research to the people in the field who need it most. Speakers encouraged attendees to collaborate and reach out to each other to create the community infrastructures needed to prevent child maltreatment.

Mark Chaffin, psychologist and professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center, said child maltreatment research favors depth and intensity over breadth and comprehensiveness. He added that taking what is known from every area of study and moving it into field settings will address the issue better than focusing on only one area.

“If there are 85 problems, then we need to handle all 85,” he said.

University of Texas Health Science Center Professor Nancy Kellogg said disclosing child abuse and neglect can be quite varied, and that there is no single way disclosure takes place. She discussed why victims and their families sometimes stay quiet about abuse, and that researchers can rarely pin-point just one reason for the silence. 

Kellogg noted that more than 50 percent of children do not report their abuse to anyone because of external factors like the fear of consequences or not knowing who to talk to. However, Kellogg also found that a primary reason for not disclosing abuse is because maltreated children are often more concerned about protecting their siblings, their non-perpetrating parent and/or other children. Most maltreated children, she said, are more worried about the people around them than about themselves. 

Kellogg said that “disclosure is a process, not an event,” and a context that helps children and families feel comfortable and not threatened when telling their stories is crucial for adequate and full disclosure to take place.

“The good news is that over the past 20 years, sexual and physical abuse in the U.S. are down 50 percent. The problem is that one case of any kind of child maltreatment is still one too many.”
 -- John Lutzker, professor of public health and director of the Center for Healthy Development at Georgia State University

The conference’s second day focused on family interventions and future directions for prevention. Many of the speakers oversee evidence-based programs that help families cope and assist in the treatment of maltreated children. They shared their methods and hopes for future directions in the field.

Judith Cohen overviewed her work with the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. She is a medical director of the Allegheny General Hospital Center and professor of psychiatry at Drexel University College of Medicine. Her talk focused on the process of introducing children to treatment gradually and lessening their anxiety by building comfort in certain areas of their lives.

“When children gradually take on the negative thoughts, they take steps to face them,” she said, “And they develop the courage to deal with them.”

While looking to the future of the field, speakers pointed to trends showing substantiated sexual and physical abuse going down, but John Lutzker, professor of public health and director of the Center for Healthy Development at Georgia State University, said that this is no time to slow down.

“The good news is that over the past 20 years, sexual and physical abuse in the U.S. are down 50 percent,” he said, but it is still occurring at very high rates. “The problem is that one case of any kind of child maltreatment is still one too many.”

Penn State President Rodney Erickson gave the opening remarks and noted that the conference is just one of the network’s many initiatives designed to combat child maltreatment.

“I am pleased that we have marshaled our resources and expertise to address the problem from many sides,” Erickson said. “We are privileged to host such a distinguished group. I look forward to a productive experience that will inspire future research and collaboration.”

The conference series continues the network’s efforts to target a range of issues pertaining to child maltreatment. In September 2013, Penn State’s second annual conference brought together district attorneys, children and youth service professionals, law enforcement officials and medical professionals as well as Penn State faculty members to discuss “Protecting Pennsylvania’s Children by Building Multidisciplinary Investigative Teams/Child Advocacy Centers.”

The University held its inaugural conference in October 2012, which featured experts in child sexual abuse and child trauma research, prevention and treatment.

Last Updated May 18, 2015