New center promotes health and healing from early-life trauma and adversity

kids standing in a circle holding a parachute, two kids are running underneath

Penn State's new Center for Safe and Healthy Children produces and supports innovative research, high quality training and evidence-informed policymaking so that all children can grow in a safe and healthy environment. Credit: Getty Images - SolStock. All Rights Reserved.

Each year, millions of children in the United States experience significant trauma and adversities that can impact their health and well-being, including child abuse, racism, family violence, family separation or extreme poverty. Research over the last few decades has demonstrated strong connections between early-life stress and subsequent mental, behavioral and physical health problems — outcomes that could be mitigated with early prevention efforts. To address this crisis, the Penn State College of Health and Human Development recently launched the Center for Safe and Healthy Children

The mission of the Center for Safe and Healthy Children is to “engage the promise of safe and healthy environments for all children through innovative research, high-quality training, and evidence-informed policymaking.” 

Faculty and trainees in the center will engage in transdisciplinary research to prevent the negative health effects of early-life stress and trauma. With the guiding principle that “safe kids are healthy kids,” the new center also will work to prevent incidences of childhood sexual abuse, which continues to be a national epidemic. Additionally, center researchers will train graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to become the next generation of scientists who are equipped to solve the complex issues of early child abuse and trauma. The final focus of the center will be the support of effective, evidence-based policies and legislation that serve vulnerable families and protect children. 

The Center for Safe and Healthy Children is directed by Jennie Noll, Ken Young Family Professor for Healthy Children and professor of human development and family studies. Noll is an expert in responses to adversity over the life course. She came to Penn State in 2013 and spearheaded Penn State’s academic response to the Sandusky tragedy, leading the Social Science Research Institute (SSRI)’s Child Maltreatment Solutions Network. The network, bolstered by the hiring of 12 faculty across five colleges co-funded by SSRI who specialize in child-abuse research, helped Penn State become a national leader in child maltreatment research and outreach.  

The Center for Safe and Healthy Children will continue to support and complement the research and training missions of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network. The center will have a broader, research-based focus on helping children who have experienced a wide range of early stressors and traumas in order to promote health and well-being throughout childhood and into adulthood.  

“This new center will support innovative science from across the Penn State community aimed at promoting lifelong well-being for children who have experienced the kinds of early life stressors and trauma that can have far-reaching consequences on their mental, emotional and physical health,” Noll said. "As the best way to ultimately protect children, we will also continue our vital work in stopping abuse before it happens.”  

Craig Newschaffer, Raymond E. and Erin Stuart Schultz Dean of the College of Health and Human Development and professor of biobehavioral health, was one of the driving forces behind the foundation of the Center for Safe and Healthy Children. 

“In Noll’s near decade as a faculty member in our college and first director of the SSRI Childhood Maltreatment Solutions Network, she and her colleagues have produced a body of scientific evidence that has catalyzed and supported tangible multi-level action to reduce early-life trauma. From legislative halls to community schools, these efforts have already made children in the United States safer. Launch of this center in the College of Health and Human Development will extend the reach and impact of this critically important work.”   

“This new center will solidify Penn State’s position as the national leader in producing cutting-edge science to improve the lives of children who have suffered at the hands of others.”

Jennie Noll, Ken Young Family Professor for Healthy Children, professor of human development and family studies, and director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Children

The cornerstones of this Center for Safe and Healthy Children will be two key infrastructure grants, of which Noll is principal investigator. The first is a $7.7 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to fund the nation’s first center for excellence in the field of child maltreatment. This award funds a large longitudinal study of children in order to better understand who is resilient to trauma and stress and why.  

The other key grant is a $1.6 million award, also from NICHD. This grant supports the training of pre- and postdoctoral fellows to address child maltreatment in four tracks: developmental processes, biology and health, prevention and treatment, and policy and administrative data. The Center for Safe and Healthy Children also provides immersive research experience for undergraduates and other graduate students through assistantships and internships.  

In the United States, research shows that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience sexual abuse before they reach the age of 18. To reverse the course of this national epidemic of childhood sexual abuse, researchers in the Center for Safe and Healthy Children will focus on how to prevent sexual abuse before it happens.  

“We developed a novel prevention program that teaches parents essential skills to protect their kids from potential sexual exploitation both online and offline and to create safe environments for all children in their community,” Noll said.  

Already implemented across Pennsylvania through key state partnerships, the parental skills program will soon be deployed at more than 30 sites nationally through a grant from the National Institutes of Health. In addition to developing and deploying trainings, the center will use its website to provide the general public with resources for identifying signs of abuse, preventing abuse and reporting abuse. 

The center also will develop and leverage state-of-the-art statistical methods for data that is collected over time. This research can improve life-course risk modeling and personalized medicine. Zachary Fisher, assistant professor of human development and family studies, member of the  SSRI Quantitative Developmental Systems Methodology Core and associate director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Children, will guide researchers in conducting cutting-edge analyses, producing competitive grant proposals, facilitating collaborations, and applying life-course risk models.  

“The College of Health and Human Development has a long history of expertise, innovation and leadership in the development of research methods,” Fisher said. “Long-term studies, like those that will be supported though the new center, hold particular promise for discovering the right times to intervene with people who have faced childhood trauma or extreme stress.”  

Promoting evidence-based policy and legislation is an important component of improving children’s lives. The center will partner with the SSRI’s Evidence-to-Impact Collaborative to directly support evidence-informed policymaking and to promote larger public investment in prevention and treatment. In doing so, the center will continue a five-year trend where child-maltreatment researchers at Penn State have served as key resource for policymakers, advising state and federal lawmakers on multiple issues related to child welfare and adversity. For example, several of the center’s faculty members participated in congressional briefings and hearings ahead of the most recent reauthorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. 

Fundamentally, the center will cultivate and provide research support to transdisciplinary teams whose research will improve health and well-being for those exposed to early-life stress, trauma and adversity. Through policy work, the center will mobilize public investment in prevention and access to intervention, while accelerating the impact of science in the lives of children and families.    

“This new center will solidify Penn State’s position as the national leader in producing cutting-edge science to improve the lives of children who have suffered at the hands of others. I look forward to expanding our local, state and federal partnerships to leverage the use of sound research to inform policies designed to better-protect children and to support struggling families,” Noll said. “Our training program will inspire future generations to likewise devote their careers to scientific innovation and to advocating for safe and healthy environments for children everywhere.”