Good Life

Penn State director's mission: Heighten awareness of child abuse

When Jennie Noll was growing up, she would sometimes wake up next to a child she had never seen before.

Noll’s mother, a nurse, was part of the first-response team in Castle Rock, Colo., a small town about 30 miles south of Denver. Her mother would temporarily shelter children if their parents were taken into police custody.

Those children spent the night very close to Noll, sleeping on the lower mattress of the trundle bed where she slept.

“I would bond with children who were sometimes victims of serious maltreatment and neglect during those years,” Noll said.

“I saw firsthand what role adults could play in the development of children,” she said. “I saw that people like my mother could work to make a positive impact for children they didn’t even know.”

Last summer, Noll was hired as part of a cluster of new faculty coming to Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The hiring will add 12 new faculty over three years.

Noll and Chad Shenk, who had worked with Noll on publications related to research on child development, were the first to be hired.

Noll is the director of the university’s Network on Child Protection and Well-Being, which, like the cluster hires, was created because of the Sandusky scandal.

Before joining Penn State, Noll worked for 10 years at the University of Cincinnati in the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and was director of research for its Division of Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology. She still holds an adjunct professor position there as she continues to do research.

She spent eight years at the National Institutes of Health in Washington before going to Cincinnati.

“Penn State made the cluster hire because they realized that they didn’t have the child maltreatment experts necessary to make a real change,” Noll said. “Nothing like this has ever happened before in the child maltreatment field.

“Part of the reason I decided to join Penn State is because of the efforts I saw the school making after the scandal,” she said. “The only silver lining out of that terrible situation is that we now have a great opportunity to do some good.”

Nan Crouter, dean of the College of Health and Human Development, said that the university needed to make a positive statement.

“We knew we had to make an academic response to the scandal, and we felt the cluster hire would bring visibility to the mobilization efforts we’re making,” Crouter said.

Noll said she is eager to make a positive impact on child abuse.

“We are working on connecting the brightest people in our field together to move child abuse prevention and treatment to the forefront of social sciences,” she said. “Penn State is really working to make sure something like this never happens again.”

Noll holds a doctorate in developmental psychology and statistical methodology from the University of Southern California, where she also obtained her bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Growing up, however, Noll was not even sure she would attend college.

“College was something I never talked about with my parents,” she said. “They assumed I would go, but we had no money to pay for it. I never thought I would actually be able to go.”

Noll attended community college for two years before earning a full scholarship to the University of Southern California.

Now, Noll is focused on bringing the issue of child maltreatment into the spotlight.

“We can’t recover as a community by having victims tell their stories and just saying sorry,” she said. “We need a sustained response so we make real change.”

“What we’re currently focusing on is changing policy, training students and bringing a heightened awareness to the issue,” said Crouter.

Susan McHale, director of the Social Science Research Institute, which houses the child protection network, said she already has seen progress.

“Penn State has mandated training on child abuse reporting for officials who work with children,” she said. “Then you have student events like the Blue Out in which people in this community are doing great things to help the community recover.”

There is also progress on the academic side. According to Crouter, the College of Health and Human Development is developing a new minor that focuses on child maltreatment. Noll will teach a graduate course in the spring semester.

“I haven’t taught in a long time, but I’m very excited for the opportunity,” Noll said. “A course like this has never been offered before. It’s great that I’m able to be involved in so many new programs at Penn State.”

“Dr. Noll is a great hire,” McHale said, “because she has vast experience in moving science all the way from basic research to implementation that can make a real change.”