Child advocacy center in area possible, but work remains

HOLLIDAYSBURG – The House passage of a bill to expand the use of child advocacy centers to detect and treat sexually abused children has renewed hopes that Blair County could have its own facility in the “foreseeable future.”

But according to those involved in planning for a center, a couple of things must happen first.

Jackie Bernard, Blair County’s first deputy district attorney, said the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency are offering grants to train local police, child care workers and school personnel on protocols to enable them to recognize and investigate child abuse in a manner that is least traumatic for the child.

The next step, Bernard said, will be to possibly convince an existing child advocacy center to establish a satellite in Blair County. The final step would be to have a regional child advocacy center in the county.

Stacie Horvath, executive director of Blair County Children Youth and Families, said Wednesday she sees Blair County having its own center in the “foreseeable future.”

Blair County officials such as Bernard, Horvath and Sheriff Mitchell Cooper, who as a city detective investigated many cases of physical and sexual abuse against children, have been working for more than a year to develop a protocol.

Pennsylvania in the past couple of years has taken steps to address child abuse issues because of revelations during the trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and abuse of children by clergy.

Gov. Tom Corbett intends to sign the new bill to provide additional funding for child advocacy centers, a spokesman said. The money will come from a $10 surcharge on duplicate birth certificates. It is expected to raise more than $2 million annually to aid the 21 advocacy centers in the state.

Advocacy centers are associated with a hospital, although not necessarily in the hospital, where experts interview and determine what has occurred to a child.

The idea is to detect abuse and then address it without having the child repeatedly relive the experience.

Cooper said Wednesday that the first thing that must be done is establish a protocol that will enable police, caseworkers, EMS technicians and many others who deal with abuse issues to work together on a case-by-case basis.

“We want to make sure we are working together with the ultimate goal of not causing more trauma to the child,” Cooper said.

The sheriff said Blair County nearly 20 years ago had such a protocol, but as the years passed, new officers and new workers came on the scene and the protocol “just kind of faded.”

He said a new protocol that has been developed is getting support with the local chiefs of police on board.

The next step will be to apply for a grant, possibly as much as $10,000, to train the police, caseworkers and the public to use the protocol.

Blair County annually has a high number child abuse reports, and Bernard and the other officials have been stressing the need for an advocacy center.

Horvath said Wednesday that last year her office received 407 complaints of abuse with 41 “indicated,” meaning the evidence of abuse was confirmed.

That was an increase from 405 investigations in 2012.

She said Blair uses child advocacy centers in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, and recently has been working closely with a facility in Centre County that opened in December. Blair County has made three or four referrals there already, said Horvath.

In January, a 36-year-old Altoona man was convicted on 15 counts of child rape and other sexual offenses against a 7-year-old girl.

Key evidence in the trial was provided by a video of the child relating to a therapist what the suspect did to her. The video was recorded at the Children’s Resource Center in Harrisburg.

The perpetrator in that case will be sentenced on April 17 by Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.