Crusader for Maltreated Children Receives Early Career Award

July 02, 2014 • Eileen Lynch

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“I’ve always been interested in childhood maltreatment because it represents such an extreme failure of caregiving,” said Kristin Valentino, the William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families Assistant Professor of Psychology at Notre Dame. “I’m really passionate about this issue, which affects 2 million people in our country each year.”

Valentino, who is currently working on a project to improve the relationships between maltreated children and their caregivers, has been selected to receive the American Psychological Association (APA) 2014 Early Career Award for Outstanding Contributions to Research in Child Maltreatment.

The award will be formally presented at the APA’s annual convention, August 7-10, in Washington D.C.

“It is an especially big honor because it comes from the leaders in the field of child maltreatment,” Valentino said. “To feel I’ve had an impact on that field at this stage in my career is really meaningful.”

Helping Children

Valentino specializes in the development of at-risk and maltreated children. She has spent most of the last few years developing an intervention program designed to enhance communication between mothers and maltreated preschoolers and, ultimately, lead to happier, healthier families.

Initial trials proved so effective that she was recently awarded a $3 million grant from the Eunice K. Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to continue the project, which employs four family coaches to work with mothers and children in the South Bend area.

“The first step is understanding whether the intervention is truly effective in the long term,” Valentino said. “If that’s the case, we’ll work on disseminating it in some sort of national model. We also want to look at whether it would apply to other age groups and constructions, rather than specifically mothers who have custody of their children.”

Valentino, who directs Notre Dame’s Development and Psychopathology Lab, focuses on the ways in which children’s interactions with their family, community, and culture can shape the course of development. A primary goal, she said, is to translate the lab’s developmental research findings into effective prevention and intervention strategies for at-risk children and their families.

Supporting Research

As Valentino pursues her research agenda, she relies on the support of her own mentors within the Department of Psychology and on help from a wide range of campus resources, including the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts and the Center for Children and Families. “Notre Dame has been really supportive in helping me connect with the community,” she said. “And I’ve received great mentorship from my colleagues. They bring experience and advice to my clinical trials.”

Valentino regularly incorporates her research into her teaching. Her Practicum in Child Maltreatment course offers Notre Dame students an opportunity to interact with children in the local foster care system while learning about the latest research in the field.

She also involves students directly in her research. “I have about 10 undergraduates who work in my lab each semester, and it’s a really important part of the research,” Valentino said. “They help us process and code the data. It’s mutually beneficial to have all these students working on it.”

While Valentino is excited to be honored for her research thus far, her focus remains on the work ahead.

“As this project moves forward, we’ll be looking at the outcomes and determining what mechanisms underlie positive intervention effects,” she said. “We’ll be able to identify who the interventions work best for, and why.”