UNIVERSITY PARK — Jessica was abused as a child. She self-medicated the pain with alcohol and illegal drugs. She was a young mother of three when emergency personnel came to her home to try to save her 10-month-old son, who drowned in the bathtub.
“And now the whole thing is spiraling to my children. When will the nightmare end?”
Penn State professor Jennie Noll has performed research looking at how the abuse of women such as Jessica, and their mothers and grandmothers, trickles down to affect their children in ways big and small, from premature birth to premature death. She shared Jessica’s story as part of the Network on Child Protection and Well-Being’s third annual conference, “Families at Risk: The Role of Parenting and Family Processes in Child Maltreatment and Intervention.”
The two-day conference, which began Monday, is “targeted to academics, researchers, clinicians,” said conference chairman Doug Teti, a professor of human development, psychology and pediatrics at Penn State. The analytical look at the subject matter was important.
“We have some of the best people in the field here,” said Teti, adding that the focus was deliberately placed on “the science, the treatment and the science of treatment.”
That also is why many in the audience at the Nittany Lion Inn were not those who study children, but those who work with them every day.
“I am very thrilled to see so many community partners here,” said Noll, pointing to service agencies, law enforcement and other groups that help children and families in need. “It is vitally important to have you here. We don’t have good theories without you.”
Just as important, she said, is that the results of the research don’t get implemented by researchers, but by those in-the-trenches advocates.
The goal for three years has been to help kids, said network Director Margaret Gray, but the tone of each conference has been different, reflecting different needs and goals. The first, in 2012, was large and had a more public face, with speakers such as Elizabeth Smart and Sugar Ray Leonard. Now, the focus is more on the work, but organizers say each one has been exactly what was needed at the time.
“Each has had a unique focus,” said Gray, who wants to make sure people know this year’s topic is just as important as it was two years ago. “I think it shows that Penn State is committed to this for the long haul.”
For that long haul, Teti would like to see a time when the issues are less about treatment than about prevention. Some of the information shared about maltreatment of children in America was startling in its scope and its savagery, and sometimes in how it could be reduced to its most basic dollars-and-cents components.
Conference presenter Laura McCloskey, of Indiana University, said that about 900,000 children are abused or neglected in the U.S. each year. Most are infants, live in poverty and come from a home with a single mother living with a partner. Most of the maltreatment is neglect rather than physical or sexual abuse. The cost, boiled down in money expended through the criminal justice system, state services and health care costs, is $210,012 per child.
“The greatest cost is the loss of human potential,” said McCloskey.
Jessica learned that when she lost her son.
Researchers hope no one learns that way again. They know that research shows otherwise. Jessica’s surviving children, according to Noll’s research, are much more likely than kids from a non-maltreated home to lose their own children to the cycle of abuse and neglect.