Child abuse prevention program gains steam

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Of the U.S.’s $2.9 trillion budget in 2008, $459 billion will go to the military. Of that, $137 billion will pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which nearly 33,000 Americans have been killed or wounded.

In 2008, the federal government will spend $1.2 million for a Minnesota-based project that may end a plague that affects as many as 60 million Americans. The National Child Protection Training Center at Winona State University hopes to wipe out child sex abuse in three generations.

“It’s an epidemic,” said Victor Vieth, NCPTC’s director. One in 10 girls and one in 20 boys report being abused before they enter 9th grade. There are about one million new child abuse cases reported each year, “and there are a lot of cases that are completely under the radar,” he said. Some estimates put the victims of child abuse at 20 percent of the population.

Vieth started NCPTC to provide child abuse prevention training for “first responders.” Now the group has a battery of programs that reach out to thousands each year:

* The Training Center at WSU trains “first responders” such as nurses, law officials, teachers and clergy how to recognize and report child abuse.

* WSU students can earn a minor in Child Advocacy Studies to pair with majors in nursing, education or law enforcement.

* Finding Words trains first responders across the country in small, hands-on courses.

* NCPTC has paired with organizations such as Hamline University, Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary, the Mayo Clinic and the Corner House in Minneapolis to teach new first responders.

* The group offers one-on-one support for lawyers nationwide who need advice when trying a child abuse case.

None of this is cheap. NCPTC started with a $1 million federal grant championed by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. But hard times hit the training center last summer when budget cuts caused WSU and the Minnesota Defense Attorneys Association to drop funding.

Vieth approached St. Paul-based National Association to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Children. “They were out of money, had laid off five people and the concept was almost at an end,” said NAPSAC director Ted Thompson. The group took over NCPTC’s administration, came up with about $1 million and it is searching for more donations.

Thompson said President Bush recently signed a $1.2 million federal appropriation for NCPTC. “Rep. Tim Walz really championed this vision and the funding,” he said.

WSU will house a new state-of-the-art training facility that will open in March. This facility will include a training house – a mock house where first responders can search for evidence while on closed circuit television so they can be critiqued and observed by other students. There are also five mock courtrooms and four mock forensic interview rooms. “We can duplicate the child protection case from beginning to end,” Vieth said.

The facility will be one of a kind. The Minnesota legislature gave $11 million to renovate WSU’s Maxwell Hall, of which $3 million helped build the training center. While first responder training is typically aimed at one profession, NCPTC looks at all professions, Vieth said. NCPTC hopes to have training centers at three more colleges within three years.

NCPTC’s Child Advocacy Studies minor at WSU is also unique. Vieth said WSU is the only university where a student can get a degree in public safety, nursing or education and pair it with a minor in child abuse prevention. “We are the first to address the undergraduate program,” he said. The group’s goal is to see the degree offered in 100 universities by 2013 and 500 universities by 2018.

The group’s training program, Finding Words, can be taught in a variety of educational settings. “The undergraduate curriculum is for students at medical schools, law schools, seminaries — anyone who works with children should be trained how to recognize sex abuse,” Thompson said.

“Our goal is to have Finding Words in half the nation by 2010. We’re at 18 states now and we expect to be in 21 states next year,” Vieth said.

Vieth grew up in Winona. A friend who is also an administrator at WSU suggested he found NCPTC at the university. Thompson said the training center could become a feather in WSU’s cap. “This will be a legacy for WSU. This is a relatively small, unknown Midwest university without much of a reputation or cash. When this program takes off, people will want to know that it started on a small university on the river.”

Thompson said NAPSAC and NCPTC’s goals align perfectly.

“Twenty years from now we want people to look at NAPSAC the way we look at MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) today. People were fed up, created an education campaign and drove legislation and now it’s a very different country.

“NCPTC is one of the only groups in the country to have such ambitious goals and has the ability and energy to back them up,” Thompson said.

All it takes is money. As Minnesotans know, an investment in a good idea can go a long way.

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