Prosecutors want Penn State fine money to fund abuse centers

Posted: August 09, 2012

Pennsylvania's district attorneys hope to channel part of a $60 million NCAA fine levied against Pennsylvania State University for its handling of the Jerry Sandusky scandal to bolster and expand child-advocacy centers across the state.

The centers provide child-abuse victims access to social workers, therapists, investigators, and prosecutors under one roof, and would offer the most effective use of the money because they directly address abuse treatment and prevention in the university's home state, said Shawn C. Wagner, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

"Too many children of sexual abuse don't have access to these much-needed services due to the lack of a dedicated funding stream and the current limitations of our existing child advocacy center's geographic reach," he said at a news conference Wednesday in Philadelphia.

His comments came as representatives from the organization, including Seth Williams and Risa Vetri Ferman, the district attorneys in Philadelphia and Montgomery County, made their own pleas in appearances in Harrisburg, State College, and Philadelphia.

The group also lobbied Penn State president Rodney Erickson and NCAA president Mark Emmert in a letter last week.

The NCAA has said the $60 million should go toward an endowment to fund child-abuse treatment and prevention projects. Penn State has offered no description of how the money will be distributed.

"It is our hope the fund will produce countless opportunities to help children in need," university spokesman David La Torre said in a statement Wednesday. "We appreciate this valuable input and will provide additional details when they become available."

The $60 million fine was part of the crippling package of sanctions issued against Penn State for what the NCAA described as the failure of top school leaders to respond to allegations lodged against Sandusky, a former assistant football coach convicted in June of 45 counts of child sex abuse.

The punishments also included a three-year postseason ban against the football team and the loss of all the team's wins from 1998 through last year.

Devoting the money to expanding child-advocacy centers would best address the twin goals the NCAA has set for the money - offering direct services to victims and educating the public about child abuse, Ferman said.

Recalling her days as a young child sex-crimes prosecutor, Ferman said victims often had to recount their abuse in separate interviews with investigators and therapists, and eventually in court.

Those interviews often took place in intimidating environments such as hospitals and police stations.

"These kids had to relive the trauma that happened to them over and over again," she said. "One mother told me, 'The abuse was bad, but your system was worse.' "

Today, in communities with child-advocacy centers, the process is streamlined, by allowing child victims to tell their stories only once to a trained interviewer in a child-friendly environment while police, health specialists, and social workers look on.

That system not only eases stress on victims but has led to better outcomes for prosecutors and social-services workers through collaboration, said Abbie Newman, director of Mission Kids, Montgomery County's child-advocacy center.

"The child becomes like the hub of the wheel," she said. "Instead of sending the child out to the spokes, the spokes circle around the child."

Despite the effective track records of organizations like Mission Kids and Philadelphia Children's Alliance, only 21 child-advocacy centers operate across the state, most of them concentrated around population hubs like Philadelphia. There is no such center in Centre County, home to Penn State.

"I guarantee you that had there been a child-advocacy center in Centre County in 1998, you would have heard about Jerry Sandusky then," Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler said, referring to the year when accusations first surfaced against Sandusky.

University police investigated allegations that the then-coach inappropriately touched two boys in football locker room showers but no charges were ever filed.

Had prosecutors, investigators, and public welfare workers consulted on the case, Heckler said, Sandusky "would have been prosecuted, and all of his victims over the next decade would have been spared."


Contact Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or @jeremyrroebuck on Twitter.

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