Penn State launches new child abuse prevention pilot programs

A new initiative spearheaded by Penn State researchers is aiming to revolutionize how policymakers understand and prevent child sexual abuse.

The Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative officially kicked off Wednesday at the York County Children’s Advocacy Center, which marks the beginning of a series of two-year pilot programs in five Pennsylvania counties to advance a comprehensive approach to sexual abuse prevention.

The initiative is a partnership between Penn State’s Child Maltreatment Solutions Network and Center for Healthy Children, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, and the Pennsylvania Office of Children, Youth and Families.  These partners will work together to pilot three evidence-based, data-driven programs:

  • “Stewards of Children,” which educates community members about spotting signs of sexual abuse and how to act if they suspect abuse.
  • “Safe Touches,” which educates children about the difference between safe and non-safe touches and that abuse is not a child’s fault.
  • A parent-focused program teaching parents about sexual abuse and healthy sexual development and how to recognize signs of abuse and potentially exploitative individuals.

The goal ultimately is to use the results from these pilot programs to develop a comprehensive and sustainable model for abuse prevention that can be adopted not just across Pennsylvanian counties, but across the nation.

“The programs that we’re using have been shown to be evidence-based and effective in changing knowledge and attitudes about sexual abuse,” said Jennie Noll, a Penn State professor and director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network. “But this is the first time that they will be studied in the context of actually changing rates of sexual abuse. This is the first such trial to track actual rates of sexual abuse through county and state administrative data systems. It is the largest effort of its kind that we’re aware of.”

Noll said this new initiative is unique in the field of child maltreatment research for several reasons: its comprehensive approach to data collection and review, its combination of proven evidence-based programs, and its partnerships between Penn State researchers and state government offices. She expects the programs to reach over 71,000 adults and 17,000 children over the next two years.

Noll said that the initiative grew out of the grant that helped establish the Center for Healthy Children and is funded through the Endowment Act to aid survivors of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania. The pilots will be coordinated by Kate Guastaferro, a Penn State research professor with the Methodology Center, and Kathleen Zadzora, a Penn State research project manager with the College of Health and Human Development. Seed funding for the project was provided by Penn State's Social Science Research Institute.

“Our goal is to not only demonstrate that these evidence-based programs work, but to create a sustainable approach to abuse prevention that we hope that the Commonwealth, and ultimately other states, will be able to adopt and put to use,” Noll said.