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Joint Program Will Train Students to Professionally Fight Child Abuse

December 15, 1987|JENIFER WARREN | Times Staff Writer

Hoping to enhance the training of professionals working in child abuse, officials at Children's Hospital on Monday announced an academic program for graduate students pursuing careers addressing the pressing social problem.

The program, a collaborative effort involving the hospital, UC San Diego School of Medicine, San Diego State University and California Western School of Law, is one of 10 nationwide funded by grants from the National Center for Child Abuse.

Dr. David Chadwick, an associate professor at the UCSD School of Medicine's department of pediatrics, said the endeavor represents an attempt to focus the educational spotlight on a field that historically has languished in the shadows of academia.

Topic Is All But Ignored

At a press conference called to unveil the new program, Chadwick noted that despite the ever-increasing incidence of child abuse, it still is a topic all but ignored in law school, medical school and other disciplines that turn out professionals who enter the field.

"Over the last 25 years or so, those of us working in the child abuse area have been forced to learn everything the hard way--on the job," said Chadwick, who is director of the Children's Hospital Center for Child Protection and who will head the new program. "There was little knowledge, minimal books on the subject, no organized training."

As a result of the void, many working in the profession are ill-equipped to handle the bevy of sensitive decisions required in most child abuse cases, Chadwick said. Others may have expertise on the sociological or psychological aspects of the problem but lack familiarity with the legal system, which ultimately ensnares most child abuse cases.

" 'At what point do you remove the child from the home? Could the child be safely left in the home, and under what conditions?' These are the types of questions we faced in these cases but often lacked the experience and knowledge to answer," Chadwick said. "So we made mistakes, sometimes tragic ones."

Extreme Case Mentioned

Chadwick cited the case of Christa Hawkins, a toddler who died in 1985 after a beating by her father, who later was convicted of first-degree murder. At the time, the social worker handling the case blamed the girl's death on the failure of the social service system designed to protect children. Hawkins was one of 15 documented child abuse deaths in San Diego County in 1985.

"This case was an extreme example of a problem we all know exists, and unless something is done to improve the system and better prepare the people who work in it, there will be more such cases," Chadwick said.

Under the new program, which officially gets under way in February, a team of professors from the three schools will teach a core curriculum about child abuse to 20 graduate students in law, medicine, sociology, nursing and other fields.

Lecture topics during the four-month term will range from the theoretical--"The Social Antecedents of Child Abuse"--to the more practical, like how to interview young victims of sexual abuse. Psychological abuse will be covered, as well as techniques for recognizing the signs of neglect and the intricacies of laws for reporting child abuse. About half of the course work will involve on-the-job training with physicians, law enforcement officers and others in the field.

Students selected from a pool of applicants will receive a stipend of $1,500 and earn credit toward their advanced degrees by completing the course, which will be taught at Children's Hospital. Though the grant provides funding for just three years, officials from each of the participating institutions expressed optimism that the child abuse course would become a permanent fixture in the schools' curriculum after that point.

Higher Standards Sought

Besides integrating child abuse training into the course work of 20 graduate students annually, those involved with the first-of-its-kind program hope it will have the more general effect of raising the standards for professionals working in the field.

Children's Hospital President Blair Sadler said, "What I hope to see come out of this is a payoff in terms of not only the skills of these particular students but a commitment from them to devote a major chunk of their lives to this complicated and important social issue.

"We really believe these people can become a base of leaders in this area."

Sadler called child abuse the most important health care issue after AIDS in this country.

The program in San Diego County, where about 40,000 reports of child abuse are received annually, is one of two on the West Coast funded by the National Center for Child Abuse, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services that provides grants to nonprofit organizations working on child abuse issues. The other is at UCLA.

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