Penn’s Field Center advocates on behalf of abused and neglected children

The abuse of children is an American crisis, with more than 3 million annual reports of child abuse, and 1,500 to 2,000 children killed by their caretakers each year. More than half of these children are killed after they have come to the attention of child welfare agencies.

Since its inception in 1999, Penn’s Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research has sown the seeds of change and worked to make a difference. It is named after its founding benefactors, Joseph and Marie Field.

Encompassing experts from the schools of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), Law, Medicine, and Nursing, as well as the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Field Center takes an interdisciplinary approach to advocating for children who would otherwise be voiceless.

Led by Executive Director Debra Schilling Wolfe, the Field Center has brought critical change to the child welfare system by shaping policy through research and supporting legislative reform.

For example, when former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with multiple counts of child abuse in 2011, the Center’s multidisciplinary team completed an in-depth review of Pennsylvania’s child abuse reporting laws and presented its recommendations for change to the PA Task Force on Child Protection in Harrisburg.

By using mapping technology in Penn’s Cartographic Modeling Lab, researchers from the Field Center also helped identify locations to establish new Child Advocacy Centers across the state, giving almost every child in Pennsylvania access to a trained forensic interviewer within an hour of his or her home. This prevents future victims of child sexual abuse from having to undergo multiple interviews.

In addition, the Center has highlighted policy loopholes that have stood in the way of justice for victims of child abuse. For instance, if a child lives in Pennsylvania but was assaulted in Ohio, neither state would investigate abuse allegations because the case crossed state borders. The Center has supported federal legislation closing this loophole and although it did not pass, Wolfe and colleagues have made certain that these kinds of inadequacies are being recognized at the federal level. 

One particular project Wolfe has been cultivating since 2013 is about to bloom: helping youth who are “aging out” of foster care have access to and succeed in higher education.

Nearly 70 percent of foster youth want to go to college, but they attend at less than half the rate of their peers, Wolfe explains. Most drop out by the end of their freshman year.

After the Field Center convened a work group of 30 diverse stakeholders across Pennsylvania, it conducted research, provided training, and advocated for legislative and policy changes to combat these statistics. Sarah Wasch, a SP2 alumna and program manager at the Field Center, took the lead on the project when she started working at the Center in 2015. Their hard work has paid off in two ways.

First, starting this fall, Cabrini University, the Community College of Philadelphia, Temple University, and West Chester University will be the first institutions to launch on-campus programs specifically designed to support foster youth and help them succeed in college, thanks to technical assistance provided by the Field Center and national experts.

Second, the Field Center’s Foster Care to College Work Group has drafted legislation that would provide financial and other supports to youth from foster care who want to pursue higher education. 

“The Field Center remains committed to improving outcomes for youth aging out of the foster care system, who often have a history of trauma, and we know that every year of education will improve their outcomes,” Wolfe says. “In addition to our work focused on increasing access to higher education opportunities for foster care youth, we are also trying to stem the ‘child welfare to child trafficking pipeline.’”

Right now, Wolfe is in the process of analyzing the data from a collaborative study with Covenant House and Loyola University’s Modern Slavery Research Project, which interviewed nearly 1,000 homeless youth across 13 cities.

Along with Johanna Greeson, an assistant professor at SP2 and a Field Center faculty director, and other colleagues, the Field Center surveyed homeless youth in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Phoenix for the Field Center’s portion of the project. They conducted the first rigorous study of multiple child welfare-related variables in the backgrounds of the respondents, who acknowledged being victims of sex trafficking or engaging in the sex trade to secure basic needs, like food or shelter.

The Field Center’s national child welfare conference “One Child, Many Hands” will be held from June 7-9 at Penn Law School. On Thursday, June 8, at 1:45 p.m., Wolfe, Wasch, and representatives from Covenant House will present their findings in the talk “Incidence of Maltreatment and Child Welfare History of Victims of Child Sex Trafficking: Policy and Practice Implications.” Anne Holton, the former education secretary in Virginia and an advocate for youth in foster care, will be the conference’s keynote speaker.

Field Center