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Published on GoUpstate.com: Saturday, June 8, 2013 at 9:02 p.m.

University of South Carolina Upstate officials are proposing to expand a popular interdisciplinary program that recently was heralded by experts on child abuse prevention.

The school’s child advocacy studies minor, a 21-credit interdisciplinary program, has quickly become one of the college’s fastest-growing programs, said Jennifer Parker, professor of psychology and associate dean of the USC Upstate College of Arts & Sciences.

The program started in the fall of 2010 with just a handful of students. Now, more than 80 students are pursuing the minor, and almost 30 graduated with it this year, Parker said.

With all the interest, the school is looking to offer a similar program for working professionals.

Parker said USC Upstate is proposing the post-baccalaureate program to the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education, which must approve any new degree or certificate programs.

The proposal calls for an 18-credit hour graduate-level program that would be aimed at professionals who work in child advocacy or those hoping to enter a related field.

“We anticipate this will be very popular,” Parker said.

USC Upstate’s child advocacy studies minor is the only one of its kind in the state, Parker said, and one of only a few such programs across the country. The school also has a Child Advocacy Center on campus that is focused on community outreach.

Victor Vieth of the National Child Protection Training Center, told professionals at an Upstate symposium on child sexual abuse late last month that, other than the USC Upstate program, there is “little evidence that rigorous instruction on child maltreatment is being provided at the undergraduate level” in South Carolina.

Vieth also said the USC Upstate program was the only one of its kind in the Carolinas.

“It’s extremely novel,” he added. “It’s one of only 24 schools in 15 states. USC Upstate is on the cutting edge.”

Vieth’s report, “The View from the Trenches: Recommendations for Improving South Carolina’s Response to Child Sexual Abuse Based on Insights from Frontline Child Protection Professionals,” found that most of those involved in handling child sexual abuse cases had no undergraduate or graduate training specific to child-related cases.

He called on colleges, seminaries, medical and law schools to develop or expand child protection curricula and said institutions should not go below the standard set by USC Upstate.

The program already has drawn attention from colleges outside of the state.

Parker said several out-of-state schools have inquired about the minor.

“There’s a lot of collaboration,” she said. “We hope to work with other institutions to create similar programs.”

The USC Upstate minor provides intensive, hands-on learning that is applicable to future psychologists, nurses, law enforcement, educators and many others, Parker said. Students also are required to intern with local agencies who deal with the issue.

“It’s multidisciplinary. It’s not just a minor in one field,” she said. “It’s something they can really take out to the field. When they graduate, they’re really well prepared to work in a variety of fields.”

“There’s nothing to compare at an undergraduate level,” she added.

Parker said the program allows more students to be trained in preventing child abuse.

If approved, the post-baccalaureate program would be just as valuable, she said.

“You really have to stay current in the field,” Parker said. “There are new initiatives, best practices and legal updates that you need. This would be for the professional who wanted to return and get graduate credit or come back and start a new career.”

She also advocates on behalf of child abuse prevention training for anyone who works with children, saying that such training could end abuse and prevent scandals such as the one involving child sex abuse at Penn State, which broke in 2011.

“That’s a perfect example of people not knowing what to do,” Parker said. “We can’t eliminate the perpetrators. But we can create an environment where it’s not possible.”

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