In 2011, news broke about Jerry Sandusky, the former Pennsylvania State University football defensive coordinator later convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period and, with it, child abuse was thrust into the spotlight of a national conversation with Pennsylvania at its center.
Abbie Newman, then the founding executive director of a relatively new nonprofit, Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center (CAC), as well as the president of the Pennsylvania Chapter of CACs, found herself in a position to influence the way child abuse cases are handled statewide.
She wanted to grow CACs, which provide a central, multidisciplinary place where law enforcement, social workers, medical professionals and others can collaborate in cases where children are alleged victims. This helps ensure that the children involved don’t need to tell their story multiple times, reducing trauma. CACs also provide access to services, such as crisis intervention.
“Nobody had any idea that [the Sandusky] case was about to break,” Newman said. “In that position, I found myself suddenly, on behalf of the 20 or so CACs in Pennsylvania, working very closely with state government on changing the law, on how did that happen, how do we not let this happen again.”
Newman worked to create new funding sources for CACs, including federal money that passes through the state. Since then, the number of CACs in Pennsylvania has grown.
Mission Kids is a CAC that facilitates responses to child abuse cases in Montgomery County. As CEO, Newman’s role has expanded beyond the county to help address child abuse around the world.
Newman founded Mission Kids 10 years ago out of her living room. Mission Kids now sees more than 500 children and non-offending caregivers a year.
“Watching Mission Kids grow, watching the number of children that we have been able to help, just having a child come in here and tell their story, we see them,” Newman said. “We see the difference in that child in an hour, from going to this secret that they are holding to getting it off their chest to somebody non-judgemental and walking out of there, already beginning to heal. That’s huge.”
Newman started her career as a pediatric nurse at Mount Sinai Medical Center, having always wanted to work with children.
“I got to really see and understand children who are in pain,” Newman said. “And see that, even though it was from a physical level, if you work together as a team, you can help these kids, because that’s what everybody at a hospital does. You all work as a team to help the patient.”
At the end of her first year as a nurse, she felt like she had grown and learned a lot. But she also felt her work had gone unrecognized, especially compared to that of the medical students, residents and interns.
A friend of hers convinced her to take the LSATs. Newman did and was surprised to see she did well. She applied to law school and ended up at Fordham University, where she took night classes while still working part-time as a nurse during the day.
Medical malpractice seemed like a good fit with her nursing background. But after a year of the plaintiff’s side, she switched to medical malpractice defense, as it fit better with her values.
After 18 years as a medical malpractice lawyer, she wanted to go back to helping people more directly, but didn’t want to go back to nursing. So she started doing some volunteer work. That was when Judge Risa Vetri Ferman of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, then a Montgomery County assistant district attorney, reached out, looking to change the way child abuse cases are handled.
“I knew Abbie personally and thought she was a person who could get things done,” Ferman said. “She was smart, dedicated to children and had an exceptional work ethic.”
Newman founded Mission Kids in 2008. It felt like the perfect blend of her work experiences and her desire to more directly help people.
At the end of 2009, Mission Kids moved into donated office space. Newman, the only full-time employee then, spent two years fundraising and proving that the child advocacy center worked. She created a management team of directors of the different disciplines that collaborate for a CAC, many of whom were Jewish women.
Ten years later, Mission Kids has grown to employ several full-time forensic interviewers, child advocates, an executive director, program manager and development and administrative staff.
She said tikkun olam forms part of the main value set.
“You do what you can,” Newman said. “You do what you can while you’re here to help people. You just have to.”