Assistant DA honored for child abuse work

Blair County’s first assistant district attorney, Jackie Bernard, will receive an award tonight from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape for her nearly 20 years of effort to combat child abuse.

Bernard has been with the Blair DA’s office since 1995, when she was hired as the county’s first full-time child abuse prosecutor.

She then established a Child Abuse Prosecution Unit that focuses on those who physically, mentally or sexually abuse children.

According to Susan Griep, the director of Blair County’s victim-witness program, Bernard has been active locally and statewide in addressing child abuse.

One of her first cases, which she helped former District Attorney William Haberstroh try, involved the beating and murder of 4-year-old Ashley Decker of Altoona by her father’s girlfriend.

The Decker case brought light to the need for better cooperation between child welfare agencies and police, and the ensuing law addressing the problem bore the youngster’s name – Ashley’s Law.

Bernard said this past week Ashley’s Law recently was cited by Gov. Tom Corbett when he signed new child abuse legislation.

The girlfriend was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence.

Bernard also engaged in statewide training sessions with coroners, police officers, domestic violence and rape counselors, victim advocates, child welfare workers and magisterial district judges, emphasizing how the agencies could collaborate when investigating child deaths.

In 2012, Bernard was named by Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Sam Smith to a task force on child protection, a group that reviewed Pennsylvania’s child abuse laws subsequent to the Jerry Sandusky prosecution.

That group made recommendations that led to the new laws.

Bernard followed her participation on the task force by testifying before the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission. She urged tougher sentences for those involved in child pornography.

Griep, who nominated Bernard for the Coalition’s Vision of Hope Award, wrote, “Frustrated with the perception that child pornography is a victimless crime and infuriated with the sentences being handed down on those convicted of child pornography, Jackie fought for revisions in the sentencing guidelines.”

She identified child pornography “as a growing criminal epidemic” and also focused her attention on ritualistic abuse of children, prosecuting a local couple last year for “mental, physical and sexual abuse” of two boys.

Michael Crawford, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, said Bernard will be receiving the organization’s Vision of Hope Award that goes to “people who are demonstrating great work in child sexual abuse prevention.”

Kristen Houser of PCRA summed up why Bernard is getting the award, stating, “She has been an ally and champion of kids pretty much her whole career.”

The Coalition is a nonprofit group that receives its income from federal and state governments, private donations and foundation grants.

It acts as a pass-through for funding to 50 rape crisis centers in Pennsylvania.

Houser said the organization’s job is to help those centers do their job of providing services to abuse victims.

The agency provides training to medical personnel, social workers – other professionals – concerning abuse issues.

She gave an example, noting the Coalition even provides training for truck drivers to help them spot human trafficking.

“Our goal,” Houser said, “is to advocate for the rights and needs of sexual assault victims and to end it in all forms.”

The organization’s job is to make sure victims in Pennsylvania have what they need when the go for help, she concluded.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.