Cornell helps combat child abuse and neglect with training, workshops, expert panels and publications

Every year, more than 3 million American children -- including more than 211,000 in New York -- are reported abused or neglected. Each day, three children die from such maltreatment.

Cornell University, the land-grant university of New York is combating this daily tragedy. Its Family Life Development Center (FLDC), an interdisciplinary unit with the mandate to help prevent family stress, with an emphasis on abuse prevention, sponsors a variety of programs to identify, reduce and prevent child maltreatment. These programs range from training Child Protective Services caseworkers and residential child care workers to researching various aspects of family violence and evaluating assessment tools and treatment interventions.

The FLDC and the Department of Human Development and Family Studies of Cornell's College of Human Ecology also are taking a national lead in providing consultation to mental health professionals who are working with the most severe cases of child maltreatment. Its staff recently organized and hosted an advisory panel of 20 experts from around the country to develop assessment and treatment resources for community mental health agencies to better identify and treat severe cases of child maltreatment.

FLDC has state support for five extension and research positions and operates $4 million in programs funded by outside grants and contracts from groups including the U.S. Deptartment of Commerce, N.Y.S. Department of Social Services, National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Deptartment of Defense, U.S. Deptartment of Agriculture and the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Since 1979, when the Child Protective Services (CPS) Training Institute was first established at Cornell, the FLDC has trained about 200 newly hired caseworkers and supervisors each year to provide them with the basic skills, knowledge and attitudes they need to make appropriate safety decisions and risk assessments. The initial 10-day residential training, offered 11 times a year in Ithaca, is mandatory for all new caseworkers in New York, with the exception of those in the New York City area, who are trained elsewhere.

Unlike other states, whose universities also train child protective services caseworkers, New York is unique in ensuring its new caseworkers are trained within the first 90 days on the job. A new system to be instituted this fall will give new caseworkers 30 days of training within the first year.

"These trainings are extensive," explained Michael Nunno, senior extension associate at FLDC, "and cover everything from how the child welfare system works, how a family enters the system through a CPS report, laws and regulations that protect children, and safety and risk issues to the functions and dynamics of a 'typical' family system, how to investigate a case, assess risk, develop a service plan and work with the legal mandates of child protective services."

In addition, institute staff trains about 1,000 experienced caseworkers a year by sponsoring more than two dozen two-day trainings throughout the state. These trainings hone the workers' skills and knowledge concerning sexual abuse dynamics, interviewing and intervention, investigation skills, legal issues, medical issues, on-call skills and interviewing.

The Residential Child Care component of the institute provides residential child care staff and foster and adoptive parents training in therapeutic crisis intervention. Five-day training sessions, offered seven times a year in Ithaca, teach participants how to deal with a child in crisis, how to apply safe and appropriate physical restraints, how to use crisis as an opportunity for the child to learn new coping skills, how to use specialized, effective training techniques and how to de-escalate a crisis.

Whereas the Child Protective Services Programs are taught by a Cornell extension associate with two professionals in the field, the Residential Child Care Project uses Cooperative Extension's "Train-The-Trainer" mode of teaching.

"The 'Train-The-Trainer' curriculum allows an agency representatives to learn how to conduct in-service programs for their staffs upon completion of their training," said Nunno, who points out that the two training institutes are funded with $1.7 million from the federal government through the New York State Department of Social Services (DSS). "In this case, participants learn therapeutic crisis intervention skills to be in control of a crisis situation and to help a child learn and grow from the experience."

In order to provide better services to children who are the victims of the most severe forms of child maltreatment, the New York State Department of Mental Health is working with the FLDC to develop procedures that will help professionals from many different fields work more successfully with these children. As part of this effort, James Garbarino, Ph.D., director of FLDC, and Jeffrey Haugaard, assistant professor of human development and family studies, organized an Expert Advisory Panel meeting July 26-July 27 in Ithaca.

"Currently, there are very few resources available to mental health professionals, social workers and physicians who are working with the most severe cases of child maltreatment," said Haugaard.

These efforts are part of FLDC's mission to improve professional and public efforts and respond to risk factors in the lives of children, youth, families and communities that lead to violence and maltreatment, explained Garbarino. "We focus on strategies and programs to help vulnerable children and youth by strengthening families and communities," he said.

Other FLDC programs include maintaining the National Data Archive on Data on Child Abuse and Neglect; Strong Families, Strong Soldiers and the Marine Corps Project, which focus on family violence in U.S. Army and Marine Corps families; Child Abuse Prevention Network, which enhances child abuse prevention nationwide; Interagency Programming and Case Management, which trains and consults with agency personnel in target communities using a problem-solving process; among other numerous projects.