When they learned, nearly a decade ago, that children had been abused on the Penn State campus, faculty members such as Susan McHale were shocked, saddened, and humbled.
“Our faculty has long been recognized for its work on behalf of children and their families,” says McHale, Distinguished Professor of Human Development and Family Studies and director of the university’s Social Science Research Institute. “My own field is child development, and I’ve been at Penn State my entire career—so mounting evidence of this predator’s crimes, and our understanding of the devastation they brought, motivated a deep and widespread desire among our faculty to launch an academic response to this tragedy.”
That response—and McHale played an integral role in it—would lead to a 30-member interdisciplinary Presidential Task Force and result in a proposal to leverage Penn State’s expertise in teaching, research, and clinical practice to combat child abuse through designing novel approaches to prevention, detection, and treatment, disseminating research-based knowledge through education and outreach, and applying that knowledge to develop effective child welfare policies. It laid the foundation for the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, which officially came into existence through a 2012 grant from the provost’s office that enabled a cluster hire of 12 faculty from five different Penn State colleges and brought Noll to Penn State in 2013 from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where she served as director of research in the division of behavioral medicine. She liaised across the university to create interdisciplinary research partnerships, and her efforts also gave rise, in 2015, to the establishment of an undergraduate minor in child maltreatment and advocacy studies that includes a field placement capstone experience. In 2017, the CMSN received national recognition through funding from the NIH to establish Penn State as a national capstone center for child maltreatment research and training, named the Center for Healthy Children. The first of its kind in a university setting, the Center for Healthy Children established Penn State’s CMSN as a national resource for cutting-edge research, training scientists and advocates, and promoting evidence-informed policy through studies including the flagship Child Health Study.
Since 2017, the University of Rochester and Washington University in St. Louis have also received funding to set up capstone centers for child maltreatment research. But Crowley cites the CMSN’s research expenditures, its senior leadership in the field, an unprecedented training mission, and the more than 500 researchers it has trained across the country to serve as a rapid response network for policymakers, as evidence of Penn State’s commitment to this issue.
“We’ve got people at universities, at nonacademic research shops, career researchers with expertise, and early-career people working on new problems,” he says. “We’re now serving the whole country and providing research to many state legislatures, so whenever a member of Congress asks us a question, we can connect them to a researcher in their state.”
The success of that model rests partly on Noll’s experience working with policymakers and translating hard science into something they can understand and potentially act upon. She knows the power of appealing to legislators with stories of abuse survivors, then backing those accounts with hard data. The CMSN now has such a solid reputation at the state and national levels that lawmakers actually seek help in garnering research that will support child welfare policy reform.
“Pennsylvania child welfare administrators asked us to perform a time-use study of caseworkers, so we did a very sophisticated empirical study based on administrative data to quantify how much time it takes to work a case,” she says of a recent example. “Data from that study was used to change caseload sizes at the state level.”
Not every CMSN researcher has Noll’s comfort level speaking with lawmakers. That’s where Crowley comes in. He came to Penn State from Duke University, where he and Taylor Scott, an assistant professor at Penn State’s Prevention Research Center, developed a research-to-policy model that demystifies science for a broader audience. His team works closely with researchers to distill their data into a format that’s easy for lawmakers to digest and coaches researchers on how to speak to legislative groups. “There are logistical and cultural differences between scientists and policymakers, so we’re training researchers in that context on how to present to an informed but lay audience,” Crowley says. “We even teach them how to manage their body language.”