Child advocacy centers should get money from the NCAA’s fine on Penn State, commissioner says

A hefty share of the NCAA’s $60 million fine against Penn State over the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal should be to pumped into child advocacy centers to help abuse victims, Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick III said Thursday.

“There could be no better utilization of those resources,” Hartwick said.

He made that proposal during a program at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy in Derry Township to tout the ChildFirst program.

That program, now a year old in the Keystone State, aims to unite the efforts of police, prosecutors and child welfare advocates to increase the effectiveness of child sexual abuse prosecutions while curbing the damage to the victims.

A main tenet of ChildFirst, which operates in 19 states, is to focus on the needs of the child.

For example, it advocates limiting interviews of abused children to specially-trained interviewers so the youngsters don’t have to repeat their accounts of molestation over and over and there is a reduced risk of their testimony being tainted by intended or inadvertent adult suggestions.

While the Sandusky case and the prosecutions of molestation claims against Catholic Church officials in Philadelphia have drawn public attention of late, many more abuse cases go through the courts unnoticed, State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan said.

The state police handled about 1,500 child sexual abuse cases in the past year, he said.

“How many of these have you heard of? Hardly any,” Noonan said.

“Society wants too look the other way,” he said. “It can’t believe these kinds of things are taking place.”

Thursday’s press conference coincided with a weeklong ChildFirst training program at the academy, one of nine such sessions being held at state police facilities across Pennsylvania this year.

Carlisle attorney Jason Kutulakis, a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Child Abuse, is one of the instructors.

ChildFirst stresses that young abuse victims be questioned by trained interviewers, not well-meaning amateurs, and to have their statements memorialized on a recording, Kutulakis said.

In the past, he said, it was not uncommon for a child to undergo a dozen interviews after reporting abuse. “That’s not child-centered. That’s not child-focused,” said Kutulakis, who is past president of the state Children and Youth Solicitors Association.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” said Adams County District Attorney Shawn Wagner, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. “In my experience, the system can exacerbate what the child has gone through.”
“In a child sexual abuse case, the first response is the most important one.” – Adams County District Attorney Shawn Wagner

That’s why the cooperative, interagency premise of ChildFirst is vital in rescuing child abuse victims and prosecuting their predators, he said.

“The most important approach we can have in child abuse cases is a collaborative one,” he said. “We must all work together. In a child sexual abuse case, the first response is the most important one.”

Concentrating on that first, pure interview with the victim and minimizing the legal system’s trauma not only gives the child a better chance at recovery, but provides stronger evidence against the molesters, Wagner said.

That approach works, Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico agreed.

“We’re seeing fewer trials in these cases and more guilty pleas, so the children don’t have to go through a trial,” Marsico said.

Child advocacy centers are the best settings for interviewing and helping molested children, he, Wagner, Kutulakis and Hartwick said.

They called for a vast expansion of those centers in the state. Only about one-third of the state’s 67 counties have access to such centers, which are hubs for child-abuse interviews and for services to aid molestation victims.

All counties in the midstate have access to such centers. Adams, York and Lancaster counties have their own centers and the Harrisburg-based Children’s Resource Center operated by PinnacleHealth System serves Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry and Lebanon counties.

Those centers find their funding from a variety of not always stable sources, and Hartwick said Pinnacle actually loses money on its center. He said a government funding stream should be dedicated to support the operations.

“There is no excuse for short-changing children,” he said.

Others have the same idea. Two bills to finance aid for child abuse victims have passed the state House and are bound for the Senate.

One calls for shifting $400,000 left over from the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program to the child advocacy centers. The other proposes to create a fund by imposing a new $15 fee on everyone who pleads guilty to any crime.

Money aside, there should be only one overriding aim, Kutulakis said.

“We as a community must protect our most precious resource,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the natural gas here in Pennsylvania. It’s the children of the commonwealth.”

By Matt Miller |

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