The scars left by the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal run deep through Pennsylvania.
But out of the darkness brought by the disturbing acts committed by the former Penn State football coach comes a glimmer of light: $48 million in fines levied by the NCAA against the university following Sandusky’s 2012 conviction will be directed primarily toward a wide range of programs to help survivors of child sexual abuse.
The first round of grants, awarded in December, funded almost four dozen groups helping survivors, among them Leg Up Farms, a York County-based equine-assisted therapy program that has designed a new program that specifically targets child sexual abuse survivors of all ages.
Leg Up Farms was chosen as the only animal therapy program in the first round of Endowment Grants totaling $3.4 million awarded by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, the agency charged with overseeing the fund.
The $53,000 award will allow Leg Up Farms to expand its therapy program from a single summer session to a year round enterprise serving as many as 50 people from young children to adults.
Commission chairman Josh Shapiro praised the organization’s successful track record working with victims of sexual assault and veterans suffering from PTSD and said the commission believes it’s important that services like these be available for child victims of sex abuse.
“Leg Up has a proven history of success with equine-assisted therapy,” said Shapiro. “Through caring for the horses, victims learn about their own self worth and overcoming obstacles.”
Leg Up Farms opened its doors in 2010 to serve children with a range of behavioral, emotional and physical challenges and began offering equine therapy the following year.
The center works with the York County Victim Assistance Center where there’s a wait list for therapy services.
“They are maxed out,” said Jennifer Hitz, Leg Up’s development director, adding York County has among the highest number of child sex abuse cases statewide.
Participants in the program will have the ability to have control in their lives and over their bodies – maybe for the first time, said Hitz.
“Being around animals empowers them and allows them to recognize their courage and esteem and overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles,” she said.
Stephanie Fleck, Leg Up’s senior therapeutic riding instructor, said she has witnessed transformations occur in young trauma victims even over the course of a summer and expects similar changes in students who began the new program last month.
“Anyone who’s involved with horses knows they work in an environment that is non-judgmental; there is no bullying and it becomes a safe place for individuals who may have been stereotyped,” said Fleck. “They come in too scared to brush a horse and by the end it’s their favorite thing to do.”
The curriculum for the program, which emphasizes personal strengths, trust building and developing communication and coping skills, will be shared with 34 other therapeutic riding centers across Pennsylvania.
Child advocates said the program’s approach could address the needs of child abuse survivors in many settings in years to come.
“What’s great is that it’s outside the box,” said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice, a coalition of child advocacy and education groups. “It’s not just about providing services in the moment, but it lays a foundation for research and standards and protocols.”
Leg Up’s executive director Tom O’Connor said the potential for changing the lives of those who have suffered the worst kinds of abuse through this kind of program is real.
“We hope ours will be a model used beyond the walls of Leg Up Farms,” he said, adding, “this curriculum may be used in other parts of the state and the country.”