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Debra Esernio-Jenssen, MD, Takes Child Advocacy to a New Level at Lehigh Valley Children's Hospital

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Debra Esernio-Jenssen, MD

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Debra Esernio-Jenssen, MD, has devoted her medical career to what she calls “the most vulnerable children in America” – the victims of child abuse. Last summer, she brought that career passion to Lehigh Valley Children's Hospital to work for child advocacy in the Children’s Clinic at Lehigh Valley Hospital-17th Street.

“From the time I got involved with child abuse victims early on in my career, I felt that these were children who needed a voice,” Esernio-Jenssen says. “A child has cancer or pneumonia or a broken bone, everybody wants to do something to help. But with child abuse, the common reaction is that people don’t want to believe it’s happening. That mindset is the single biggest obstacle we face.”

Esernio-Jenssen is the medical expert on the team of multidisciplinary professionals who advocate for children and provide education about child abuse at the Child Advocacy Center. Future plans for the Child Advocacy Center include locating the entire child abuse team at Lehigh Valley Hospital-17th Street

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed legislation that ensured dedicated funding streams for child advocacy centers throughout the commonwealth going forward.

“What is equally important is the language written into the new law,” Esernio-Jenssen says. Pennsylvania, she says, is one of the states that has been lacking in terms of reported child abuse. She points to 2012 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services statistics that indicated there were 23,000 child protective services responses to suspected abuse cases in Pennsylvania, and only 3,500 of those were substantiated. She contrasts that by statistics in Ohio, which is similar demographically (2.7 million population). In the same year, Ohio had 100,000 responses and 20,000 substantiated cases.

“Pennsylvania’s new law will address that disparity by being more definitive about what constitutes physical abuse, substantial pain, physical impairment and other abuse descriptions easily left to interpretation,” Esernio-Jenssen says. “In some states, a child with a bruise is a suspected abuse victim. In other states, something far more excessive is required. There are still 19 states that allow corporal punishment in schools. We’re so tolerant of this behavior as a society, we don’t even realize what we’re doing to our children.”

Esernio-Jenssen’s experience in child abuse is what made her an attractive candidate for Lehigh Valley Health Network. In her previous role at University of Florida in Gainesville, she helped to establish a Child Advocacy Center in the surrounding counties.

“We’ll always see any victim of child abuse at LVHN,” Esernio-Jenssen says. “But as our new center takes shape and as the awareness of child abuse grows, I hope we see something like I saw in Florida – centers all around the area where children can be protected from abuse. That’s my hope for the Lehigh Valley.”