Mount Nittany Health to house local children’s advocacy center; county officials grateful for support

The push in Centre County to create a children’s advocacy center, a place where children who have been abused or neglected are interviewed in a friendly, comforting environment, started in the maelstrom of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse case.

County Judge Bradley P. Lunsford seized the momentum the day after Sandusky’s preliminary hearing in December 2011, making phone calls to gather information. By the summer, the push got stronger, as Lunsford and others had the center organized as a nonprofit. By September, its advisory board was picked.

And officially as of this week, the center has a physical space on hold in Centre County thanks to the local hospital.

The center will be housed in one of Mount Nittany Health’s buildings in Bellefonte, officials from the hospital announced Tuesday after plans were in the works for months. The announcement followed the health system’s board approving the plans Monday.

The site in question is off state Route 550 just outside Bellefonte in Spring Township, near Bonfatto’s. There are two buildings in the complex, on Medical Park Lane, and the center will be housed in half of the building that fronts Route 550.

“It’s our responsibility as the region’s health leader to protect the most vulnerable and improve access to care,” said Steve Brown, the president and CEO of Mount Nittany Health, in a news release. “A regional child advocacy center will provide a safe, private place for children and a centralized resource to bring together the professionals involved in the process of helping the child.

“It’s simply the right thing to do for children.”

The investment in the center by Mount Nittany is significant because it means the center won’t have to raise money to buy or rent a building, renovate and furnish it. Mount Nittany will renovate the other half of the building to house its pediatrics office, and three pediatricians from the office will go through training so they can perform the medical exams on children brought into the center.

The center and the pediatrics office will have separate entrances, said a Mount Nittany Health spokeswoman.

The center will serve as a hub for central Pennsylvania, a region whose children have lacked access, officials have said. The next closest centers are in Danville, Harrisburg and Indiana County.

Lunsford and District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, who also has worked to develop the center, were grateful for Mount Nittany’s support.

“It has been long overdue for Centre County, and we are incredibly blessed that Mount Nittany has stepped up to the plate to look out for central Pennsylvania’s children,” said Parks Miller, whose office has prosecuted abuse cases over the past few years that include a convicted pedophile who married a woman just to get access to molest her son and a woman convicted of endangering her daughter after authorities found the home covered in dog feces.

Lunsford said the children’s advocacy center will be the “gold standard” because of Mount Nittany’s help.

“This gift from the hospital will also help our wounded community heal,” he said.

The purpose of a center is to have the child avoid the trauma and fear of retelling his or her story of abuse to multiple people investigating the allegations or helping the child — such as a police officer, a prosecutor, a caseworker and a doctor.

Instead, someone specially trained to interview children, called a forensic interviewer, will talk to the child. Police, prosecutors and caseworkers will be able to see and hear the interview through one-way glass.

The site will have a separate space for doctors to examine the child. Mount Nittany pediatrician Craig Collison will be the center’s medical director, and pediatricians Rachel Schwab and Kristie Kaufman also will be certified to provide care.

“These children that undergo abuse are the most vulnerable in our society, and to be able to provide a children’s advocacy center to help them heal ... it’s very rewarding to know that we’re going to be able to do that locally now,” Collison said.

The center’s advisory board is working toward hiring an executive director, who will be sought via a national search.

The creation of more children’s advocacy centers in Pennsylvania was one of the central recommendations in a report in November from a task force charged with examining ways to better protect children. The report said children should be no farther than two hours away from a center.

The center in Centre County could serve anyone who makes the drive here, Parks Miller said.