Crimes Against Children Conference

Dallas, TX

June 22, 1999

Good morning. Thank you Chief Click for your kind introduction and to Lieutenant Walsh and Cheryl Sutterfield for your commitment to this eleventh annual Crimes Against Children Conference and your dedication to protecting children from abuse and neglect. But most importantly, thank you, conference participants, for being here.

Throughout my career as a judge, a United States Attorney, and now as Deputy Attorney General, I have been troubled by the notion that too many of this country's children are victims of violence and that too many of us do too little about it. That is why this conference is so very important. Many of you have been on the front line for years, using the most sophisticated and thoughtful techniques to help abused children and their families. You gather this week to hone your skills and refine your practice. For this, I cannot thank you enough. It is only through your continued hard work, your commitment, and your dedication that all of our Nation's children will be given an opportunity to thrive.

I understand too that some of you gather here for the first time -- learning for the first time the unique issues that confront child victims and the professionals that care for them. To you, I offer an extra special welcome. Our children desperately need your help. Make no mistake. This is not easy work, and I thank you for accepting the challenge. Your service to our children is a great gift.

While we approach the problem of child abuse and children's exposure to violence from different perspectives -- as police, as prosecutors, as therapists as doctors -- I know that we share common goals: to protect and to nurture our children. We all hope to see the day when we can walk into any courthouse in this country and not encounter child victims, child witnesses to violence, and juvenile offenders. We must dedicate ourselves, to three guiding objectives:

1. To finding better ways to prevent our children’s exposure to violence

2. To intervening early and effectively when children tragically do become crime victims and witnesses, and

3. To making certain that individuals who perpetrate crimes against children are brought to justice and held accountable for their acts.

I wanted to begin this morning by talking about a real child -- a young man named Chris. Chris’s history resembles too many of the children that I encountered as a judge and as the United States Attorney in Washington D.C. I suspect, too, that Chris’s story is strikingly similar to that of many children you see every day. Chris, I think you’ll agree, is the reason we are all here.

This is Chris' story. At age 4, Chris first entered the criminal justice system as a crime victim. He returned to the system as a victim at age 6. And again at ages 7 and 8. By age 9, Chris became a suspect in a crime, and repeated the pattern of being a “victim” then a “suspect” until age 13. By age 13, he was a suspect 16 times, and a victim 14 times. At age 14, things got worse. Chris was arrested. Not just once, but 28 times. And again a pattern emerged in his life. Chris alternated between being a victim, a suspect, and an arrestee from the age of 14 to the age of 17. By the time Chris became a legal adult, he had a total of 80 encounters with the criminal justice system.

Chris was a victim, suspect, or arrestee 80 times. His story reveals the sad truth that childhood victimization is a strong predictor of juvenile and adult criminality. We also see that as Chris evolved from child victim to adult offender, we as a society were presented with 80 opportunities to stop the cycle of violence. 80 challenges. These challenges must not be left unmet.

That is why we are here. The only way to break the cycle from child victim to adult offender is to prevent early victimization and to intervene early in the lives of children who experience violence. Throughout this conference, you will be exploring the most effective intervention strategies, learning to give children the support they so desperately need, and helping to break the cycle of violence -- so that the next “Chris” can have a brighter future.

Chris’s story is far from unique. Children are substantially more vulnerable to crime victimization than adults. Young people, regardless of race or social status, in urban and rural communities alike, are much more likely to become victims of crime. While young people, particularly teenagers, commit about 18% of crime, they make up about 33% of crime victims. In 1997, child protective service agencies investigated 3 million reports of child abuse, of which 1 million were substantiated. Of the 22.3 million children between the age of 12 and 17, 1.8 million have been the victim of a serious sexual assault; 3.9 million have been the victim of serious physical assault; and 9 million have witnessed serious violence. Police encounter at least ½ million children during domestic violence arrests. And approximately 24% of rapes occur in the victim’s home where children are often present to see or hear the sexual assault of their mothers or caregivers.

Children who are victims of, or witnesses to, violence suffer devastating consequences. The scars are not only physical. Exposure to violence affects how children see, feel, and learn. Often the emotional consequences of viewing violence are long-lasting and severe. Children who are victims of, and witnesses to, violence are at a higher risk of developing behavioral problems, chronic delinquency, substance abuse, traumatic stress syndrome, depression, suicidal tendencies, and violent criminal behavior. Being abused or neglected as a child increases the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile by 53% and the likelihood of arrest for a violent crime as an adult by 38%.

While these statistics by themselves are alarming, we must not lose sight of the fact that behind each statistic is a feeling child. As a judge, and later as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, I saw too many children who suffered at the hand of violent adults -- usually their parents and “caregivers” - or who witnessed the violent assaults and deaths of loved ones. Seeing these children brought home a critical lesson: we must do better by our kids. We most do more. And we must do more now.

Until the last decade or so, abuse and violence against children was addressed from the social services perspective only. Police, prosecutors, and judges had little experience dealing with child victims and witnesses and almost no contact with the array of child welfare, medical, mental health, and educational services involved with child victims. Each profession held a different piece of the puzzle making up a child’s life, but no discipline could see the complete picture. As a result, children too often fell through the cracks and didn’t get the support they so desperately needed.

It is time for us to look at abuse, neglect, and children’s exposure to violence as a law enforcement issue as well as a social services issue. If we are to break the cycle of violence, we must work together across disciplines, to prevent and reduce children’s exposure to violence.

Violence prevention can take many forms. But the key to every effective prevention effort is to start early and start smart. If we don’t invest in early childhood care and support successful prevention programs, we will be left with imperfect and expensive criminal justice system solutions.

What is prevention all about? Prevention is about reaching families early and helping new parents become capable and nurturing caregivers. We should support home visitation programs that bring nurses and other skilled professionals into homes and offer new families the assistance and skills they need. Parenting is the most important job any of us will ever have, and it’s the one for which we are too often ill-prepared. We must do all that we can to foster good parenting practices in every family.

Prevention is about acknowledging the critical importance of the first years of our children’s lives: zero to three. We’ve done so much through early Head Start, quality child care initiatives and other programs. But we can do more to help our children develop and thrive.

Prevention is about education. We must teach our children conflict resolution skills early and help them learn that violence is not the only way out when they are in trouble. We need to help them understand and appreciate differences. As we too often learn the hard way, lessons in tolerance not learned early are lessons almost invariably lost.

Prevention is about keeping guns out of criminal's hands and out of our children's hands. And yes it is about closing the dangerous gun show loophole, making sure that child safety locks are sold with every gun, ensuring that violent juvenile offenders are not able to turn around and buy a gun on their 21st birthdays, and limiting children's access to guns by raising the age for firearms possession. These are but a few of the critical, common sense measures that can help keep guns out of the hands of our children.

Prevention is about bringing an end to domestic violence. We need to understand and appreciate the close connection between domestic violence, child abuse, and children witnessing violence. We must understand that a child who sees those closest to her hurting or killing each other is a child scared and scarred. We must do a better job supporting victims of domestic violence and ensuring that children exposed to domestic violence get the help and services they need.

Prevention strategies can take these forms and more. But no matter what shape they take, the key to all successful violence prevention strategies is to start early and start smart.

Of course, prevention alone is not enough. While ideally we could prevent children’s exposure to violence -- spare every child the pain of victimization, the trauma of witnessing, the stress of the courtroom -- we know that there are, and will continue to be, children who will suffer and who will need our help. In the unfortunate situations where even the best prevention efforts come too late, we must find ways to intervene effectively with children and their families.

Police and prosecutors are accustomed to gathering evidence and litigating cases. But the complex needs of child victims require that law enforcement not work in a vacuum. We must work in multidisciplinary teams, become active partners with other professionals and agencies. To intervene effectively, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and courts must understand children's developmental stages and ensure that children traumatized by violent crime have access to mental health and other victims services to help them cope.

Multidisciplinary intervention approaches that pair mental health providers with law enforcement officers, Child Advocacy Centers that draw on the skills of a multitude of professionals, Child Interview Specialists in prosecutors’ offices, Court School programs, and training initiatives that help law enforcement professionals identify abuse-related injuries and understand the psychological impact of abuse all have made a tremendous difference. For eleven years, through this Crimes Against Children Conference, the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center have been in the forefront of the movement to train professionals and spread the word about these innovative techniques. Your efforts are invaluable.

But I assure you that you do not work alone. The Department of Justice is committed to assisting you in any way that we can. In December 1998, I was honored to stand with President Clinton as he unveiled the Department of Justice's Children Exposed to Violence Initiative. This Initiative is supporting a range of projects including the development of an important new monograph, Breaking the Cycle of Violence: Recommendations to Improve the Criminal Justice Response to Child Victims and Witnesses, that describes in detail many of the intervention strategies you will be discussing throughout this conference. The monograph is now available from the Department of Justice, and I commend it to you.

The Children Exposed to Violence Initiative will also be offering financial support to several promising programs. Let me highlight just a few. The Child Development - Community Policing project in New Haven, Connecticut is an extraordinary example of a multidisciplinary intervention program that delivers results. The CD-CP program is a joint effort of The Yale Child Study Center, The New Haven Police Department, area schools, and state child protective services designed to provide immediate mental health services to child crime victims and witnesses. In New Haven, experts in treating traumatized children and families respond with law enforcement officers at every crime scene where children are in need. Police officers train the child development specialists; the mental health providers train the law enforcement officers. And children are the clear beneficiaries of the joint effort.

Because the Yale Child Development - Community Policing program works, the Department of Justice will soon fund similar efforts in up to 12 communities through our new $10,000,000 Safe Start Initiative. We will announce the grant recipients next month.

While CD-CP focuses on children outside of court, other promising intervention programs focus on children once they enter the justice system. When children must go to court to testify about the violence they experience, we must adopt special investigative methods and innovative trial techniques that maximize children’s abilities to convey accurate information while minimizing additional trauma. We must make sure that children are not revictimized by the very systems designed to help and protect them.

As many of you are well aware, Children’s Advocacy Centers do just that. In over 350 communities, Children’s Advocacy Centers enable law enforcement officers, child protection workers, prosecutors, victim advocates, and therapists to conduct coordinated interviews of children in a “child friendly” setting rather than through multiple interviews in intimidating environments. Most Children’s Advocacy Centers employ trained child interview specialists who help children relay their experiences. Coordinated, developmentally-appropriate interviews reduce stress to the child, and help prosecutors gather the evidence they need to make the best possible case. We, at the Department of Justice, are proud to fund this most promising work.

But intervention and prevention alone are not enough. We must do a better job of holding accountable perpetrators of violence against children. Crimes against children must be regarded as among the most serious of all offenses. It is a sad reality that the criminal justice system often does not deal adequately, and in my mind, justly with crimes against children. Tragically, often it appears that child victims are considered less valuable to society than adult victims. All too often abusive conduct -- sexual, physical, sometimes even homicidal acts -- are treated less seriously when the victim is a child.

I have seen too many cases where a child has died as the result of repeated physical abuse by an alleged "caregiver” and the defendant successfully argued that he or she only meant to discipline the child and never intended to hurt the child, never intended the child to die. Because our homicide statutes are frequently incapable of justly dealing with these situations, and regardless of the proof adduced at trial, perpetrators “get off” with lesser offenses, inadequate sentences and they are free to hurt again.

Through the Children Exposed to Violence Initiative, the Department of Justice recently released a legislative monograph called Children Exposed to Violence: Recommendations for State Justice Systems that contains a series of proposals for new State legislation. This legislative monograph includes suggested reforms to State felony murder statutes that ensure that child murderers can be effectively prosecuted and subject to penalties that fit the seriousness of their crimes. The new law would make child abuse a predicate act for felony murder and would create first degree murder liability for deaths resulting from a pattern or practice of child abuse. Some states have adopted such laws, but more states must follow suit.

And while we are holding perpetrators accountable, we must make sure our children aren’t victimized yet again by the justice system designed to protect them. We must enact state legislation that helps support our child victims and witnesses when they enter our courts and that make the justice system more responsive to their special needs. The monograph describes legislation that allows children to testify through closed circuit TV, that limits the number of interviews children must endure, that provides them with assistance while testifying, and that supports them with multidisciplinary child abuse teams that offer trauma counseling and provide access to medical and mental health services. The legislative monograph also proposes changes to our evidence rules that would create a hearsay exception for credible out-of-court statements children make about their abuse, and that would allow juries in child molestation cases to hear evidence about similar crimes that a defendant has committed. I urge you all to pick up a copy of the monograph and then work in your States to enact these legislative reforms.

About six weeks ago, the Department of Justice Children Exposed to Violence Initiative convened Safe from the Start: The National Summit on Children Exposed to Violence. At that meeting, many of the Nation's leading experts gathered to begin work on a National Action Plan to reduce children's exposure to violence. Work on the Action Plan continues, and I invite all of you to aid in its development. Upon completion, the Plan will serve as a blueprint for local action, a how-to guide for all communities struggling to keep their children safe. I hope too that you will participate in the many State Forums, supported by the Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, that will focus on the link between child abuse and juvenile delinquency.

Children's exposure to violence is an issue that touches us all -- an American tragedy that scars our children and threatens the safety of our communities. We have a great challenge ahead of us, and all of you are our most valuable resource. For those of you who have been working for years to protect abused and neglected children, I am eternally thankful. And for those who are new to this work, you have my deepest respect and support. Throughout the course of this week, as you gather the latest information, you will continue to help move this country in the right direction, closer to the day when kids are no longer victims of, and witnesses to, violence, when children are given the support they need to thrive, and when our youth respond to conflict without destroying their lives and the lives of others. Thank you and God Bless You.