UNIVERSITY PARK — The Jefferson County district attorney once did an elephant impression in front of the jury in a child abuse case.
The purpose, District Attorney Jeff Burkett told child abuse victim advocates at a Penn State conference Wednesday, was to relax the young girl who was testifying against her dad, who’d done “unspeakable things” to his daughter.
The girl eased up. She laughed, and Burkett said it seemed like she momentarily forgot that she was in court for something so sinister.
But the cheerfulness didn’t last. When Burkett directed his questioning to what her father did to her, she clammed up and he had a hard time getting her to say much on the stand.
Burkett said that the case stands out as one that exposes a failure in the judicial system to help abused children, and he used the anecdote to underscore the importance of a children’s advocacy center, which was developed in his county before he tried the case he described.
“I started to think to myself, if it’s that hard on kids to talk about their abuse, why do we in the system make them do it over and over again?” Burkett said during Penn State’s conference, which focused on educating authorities on the use of children’s advocacy centers and investigative teams to improve child abuse prosecutions and help young victims heal. “The system marches these children around from agency to agency, forcing them to relive the abuse that they don’t want to talk to you about in the first place.”
At a center, the child victim talks with a forensic interviewer who is trained to handle that kind of interview. The so-called one-stop shop for interviewing does away with the trauma a child would experience in separate interviews with police, a case worker, a prosecutor and a doctor, experts say.
The conference sought to bring together county-level law enforcement and child protection authorities to learn and share information about the best practices for kick-starting the investigative teams in their areas. Organizers said they hope the ideas will encourage the authorities to work together in their home areas, regardless of whether they have the resources to set up a physical place for the center.
The state has 22 such centers, and one on the way for Centre County, but the rural parts of the state lack the access to this resource, the experts at the conference said.
“Ultimately, what we are trying to do for these kids is to ensure that when they lay their head on the pillow at night, they are not being continuously woken up by night terrors that no one knows anything about,” Teresa Huizar, the executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, said in her keynote address.
Huizar pointed to research that shows that investigations without the use of a children’s advocacy center cost 36 percent more than ones with the center. The research also shows that children who go to a center are more often referred for behavioral health assessments than those from communities without a center.
The movement to start a children’s advocacy center in Centre County began in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, as advocates wanted better ways to protect children. The local hospital system, Mount Nittany Health, is funding the center, which will open in an office building off Zion Road on the outskirts of Bellefonte.
Huizar said that the Sandusky case’s galvanizing the movement is one that has played out across the country.
“It really happened as a result of the community looking at a case gone bad and saying to themselves, ‘We have to have hope it can be better than this,’ ” she said. “So, we know and understand, and all 800 CACs across the country understand, what it’s like to be in the middle of the whirlwind and try and reach for something that’s higher and better, and better for kids.”
Abbie Newman, the director of the children’s advocacy center in Montgomery County, said that the Sandusky case created intense awareness of the cause.
“For Pennsylvania, it’s been a rallying cry, and I think it’s wonderful,” she said.
The Sandusky case led to the creation of the state Task Force on Child Protection, which found that many parts of the state are underserved and that all children should be within two hours’ traveling time of a center. The task force also recommended that the state devote funding for children’s advocacy centers.
The conference was sponsored by Penn State, the state Department of Public Welfare, and the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.
It was the second conference on child protection that Penn State has offered in the wake of the Sandusky scandal and its promise to become a leader on abuse prevention and awareness.
Another Penn State initiative, the Network on Child Protection and Well-Being, will support the mission. Penn State has committed to hiring at least 12 faculty members to support the network, and three have taken residence on campus. One of new hires, professor Jennie Noll, spoke about the collaborative efforts.