Children’s Advocacy Center to Open in Bellefonte
A multifaceted, central location focused on healing child victims of physical and sexual abuse is slated open in Bellefonte later this year with the support of area advocates, medical and forensic professionals, and law enforcement.
The new Children’s Advocacy Center, which will be housed at Mount Nittany Health’s Medical Park Lane location, plans to provide a centralized location for all of the services needed in a child abuse case, including medical care and evaluations, and interviews.
“The goal of the children’s advocacy center is to be child-focused,” Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said in a press release issued by Mount Nittany Health, which is funding the center. “That means one interview, one place, one time for children who have been abused or witnessed abuse.”
According to the press release, Mount Nittany Health is supporting the facility design and construction, and the training of its medical staff to provide treatment to children of abuse and/or neglect.
“I am very pleased with this step forward,” Steve Brown, president and CEO of Mount Nittany Health, said in the release. “It’s our responsibility as the region’s health leader to protect the most vulnerable and improve access to care. 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.”
Judge Bradley P. Lunsford, who is helping to head the project with Miller, is chair of the Centre County Child Protection and Safety Collaborative, which he said was formed the day after Jerry Sandusky’s preliminary hearing. That’s when the idea for the center was born.
Lunsford said he wanted to bring together child advocates in the community, so he started making phone calls. He reached out to the Youth Services Bureau and child psychologists. Soon after, the YMCA and area school districts jumped on board, he said.
“From that point on it just grew and grew,” he said. “We thought it would be an ideal fit for Centre County.”
Current plans are for the center to open in about six months, Lunsford said, and right now the board is searching for an executive director and working on getting plans approved by Spring Township.
Staff would include, in addition to an executive director, an administrative assistant, a full-time victim advocate, and eventually maybe full-time forensic interviewers, he said.
Additionally, Mount Nittany Physician Group pediatrician Dr. Craig Collison, as well as other Mount Nittany Health doctors, will also be on staff, Lunsford said.
“They will be doing the medical evaluations when needed,” he said.
Lunsford said it’s important for the community to understand that the center will be multifaceted. While its goals are to help victims heal and effectively prosecute child abusers, it will also be a facility to house resources, host programs and group therapy, and act as a heart that connects those harmed by abuse to professionals and the assistance and tools they need.
“(It’s a) hub for child advocacy,” Lunsford said, “which this community really, really needs. Hopefully (this will be) a focal point for us to heal.”
Collison, who serves on the board for the Children’s Advocacy Center, said the center will be geared toward the comfort of the child. It is meant to be different, and more easing, than an emergency room or police station, where child abuse victims typically go in these cases.
“(It will) portray a very safe and child-friendly place,” Collison said.
While the board does expect the center to operate on a full-time base once it opens, the amount of cases will vary, Collison said. But, even if there isn’t a child being evaluated at the center at any one given time, it will still be used for work, training and a variety of other purposes, he said.
“It’s not for emergencies,” Collison stressed.
The center has received an “outpouring of support” and “positive feelings” from the community, Collison said.
“We’re in a good position as far as that goes,” he said.
Collison said having one location is “really crucial for the child,” in that all involved professionals are in one place. This helps enable “parts of the puzzle (to come) together.”
“That way it’s a real team approach from the care standpoint as well,” Collison said.
The center is seeking accreditation from the National Children’s Alliance, which has provided the model for the Children’s Advocacy Center, Collison said.
There are a variety of these centers across the country, but none in Central Pennsylvania, Collison said. The closest ones may be in Danville or Harrisburg, and there are some in the Pittsburgh, Scranton and Philadelphia areas. However, there are none in Centre County, and there wasn’t a real push to open one locally until the Sandusky scandal broke, he said.
“Both ends of the state are covered but the middle is wide open,” Collison said.
Though the center primarily will serve Centre County, the board would like to keep options open when it comes to extending assistance.
“We’re very open to expanding to become a regional center,” Collison said. “That is our hope.”
To date, board members for the Children’s Advocacy Center include: Collison; Dr. Patricia Best, retired superintendent of the State College Area School District; and Kim Neely, director of The Foundation for Mount Nittany Medical Center. Additionally, Mount Nittany Health pediatricians Drs. Rachel Schwab and Kristie Kaufman will receive specialized training to work at the center, according to the press release.
For more information visit mountnittany.org.