Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Remarks for the National Conference of State Legislatures
Children, Families and Health Committee
Washington, D.C.
December 2, 1999



Good morning. Thank you, Representative Goodman (Toby) for your kind introduction, your work chairing this committee, and your commitment to protecting our nation's children. You have played a vital role in Texas, working to prevent school violence and leading the way on a host of critical issues affecting families and children. On behalf of the Department of Justice, I want to thank you particularly for your remarkable leadership on child support enforcement. Your recent award from the National Child Support Enforcement Association naming you "Legislator of the Year" is testament indeed to your dedication to protecting and supporting our nation's young people. I commend your efforts on behalf of our children, and I thank you for inviting me to join you this morning.

I would also like to add a special word of thanks to Mary Fairchild, Program Principal of the Children and Families Program. Like many of you, Mary attended Safe from the Start: The National Summit on Children Exposed to Violence that the Department hosted last summer, and took to heart my challenge to convene follow-up conferences dedicated to developing solutions to the problem of children exposed to violence. Thank you Mary, for continuing the important work we began at the Summit and for your strong involvement with the Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention on issues affecting children.

There are few groups that can make as powerful a difference in the lives of children as the National Conference of State Legislatures, and I am delighted to be here with you to discuss the issue of children exposed to violence. This is an issue very near to my heart. As I often tell the dedicated men and women working on this issue around the county, if I can leave but one legacy in my tenure as Deputy Attorney General of the United States, I hope it will be that I helped this nation make real progress in reducing the number of children who are victims of, or witnesses to, violence.

I would like to begin this morning in a somewhat unusual way, by looking at the issue of children exposed to violence from the perspective of our nation's children. None of our nation's children is immune from the effects of violence. Only when we look through our children's eyes and listen to their voices can we begin to understand the destructive effects of violence on children's lives.

The video that you are about to see is disturbing, but it's real. It is a powerful portrait of what happens to children who experience violence. Children's experiences are expressed through the words and drawings of young victims and witnesses of domestic violence, neighborhood violence, and sexual abuse. The material is sensitive and often disturbing, and the producers have taken every precaution to protect the privacy of the children whose stories and feeling are shared. Let us begin by looking through a child's eyes.

This powerful video was created by the Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime for Safe From the Start, the first national summit on children exposed to violence. As I mentioned, this past June, the Justice Department and the Department of Heath and Human Services brought together one hundred and fifty of our nation's leading experts in law enforcement, mental health, education, social services, and domestic violence and asked them to join forces to identify the most effective ways to prevent children's exposure to violence, to promote innovative intervention strategies, and to strengthen law enforcement's tools to hold perpetrators of violence against children accountable for their acts. I am delighted to see many of you who made the national Summit a success participating here today, and I look forward to discussing with you some of the proposed law enforcement reforms, legislative initiatives, and new programs that emerged from the Safe from the Start Summit.

But as members of this Committee know so well, our work in Washington is always just a beginning. While national conferences and initiatives serve a role, the real work is done not in Washington, but in the States and in our communities -- program by program, family by family, child by child. That is why the work each of you do, day in and day out, protecting the interests of child victims and witnesses through the State legislative process is so vitally important. Many of you have devoted your careers to preventing youth violence and child victimization. It is through your dedication and commitment that children are helped and lives are changed. You have my respect and admiration for your dedicated service to our children who are most in need.

Each one of us who works with children in the justice system -- each legislator, each police officer, each prosecutor, each social service provider, each mental health professional, each parent -- approaches the problem of children exposed to violence from a unique perspective, but we all share a common goal: to protect our children and keep our communities safe.

To achieve this goal, I believe we must dedicate ourselves to three guiding objectives: (1) to find better ways to prevent children's exposure to violence; (2) to intervene early and effectively when children tragically do become crime victims and witnesses, and; (3) to make certain that individuals who perpetrate crimes against children are brought to justice and held accountable for their acts.

I have often said that the most meaningful challenge that every adult should accept is to make a difference in the life of just one child -- just one child who is not related to you by blood.

Today, as we set our sights on these three objectives, I would like to start by focusing on just one child to see the incredible opportunities presented to all of us to make a difference.

This is a true story of a child named "Chris." Chris's life is tragically similar to the lives of children I encountered as a judge and as the United States Attorney in D.C., and like the lives of so many of your young constituents. You all should have copies of a one page chart that I call "Chris's Justice System Rap Sheet." It tells the alarming story of Chris s path from child victim to adult offender. It also tells an even more disturbing story a story of Chris's 80 encounters with the criminal justice system, from ages 4 - 17, and the 80 opportunities for prevention and intervention that were lost.

As you can see, Chris first entered the system as a crime victim at age 4. Chris was back in 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 from ages 9 through 13. At 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 on 28 counts. And again a pattern emerges: arrestee, suspect, arrestee, suspect, victim, arrestee, suspect, as Chris grows from age 14 to age 17. By the time Chris became a legal adult, he had a total of 80 encounters with the criminal justice system.

As you've seen, Chris appears as a victim, suspect, or arrestee 80 times. Chris's life story reveals the sad truth that childhood victimization is a strong predictor of juvenile and adult criminality. As Chris evolved from child victim to adult offender, we as a society were presented with 80 opportunities to stop the cycle of violence. Eighty prevention and intervention challenges. These kinds of challenges must not be left unmet. 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, 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. The statistics are alarming. While young people, particularly teenagers, commit about 18% of crime, they make up about 33% of crime victims. Juveniles are the victims in 25% of all violent crimes, and in 20% of all family violence incidents reported to law enforcement. 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. Juveniles are the victims in 58% of all forcible rapes, with 15% of victims under the age of 12. When a rape occurs between family members, a child is the victim 73% of the time, and 39% of those victims are under the age of 12. Police encounter at least 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 care-givers.

The statistics on juvenile-on-juvenile violence are equally troubling. While the number of juveniles arrested for violent crime fell 19% in the last 5 years, children are still the victims in 66% of all violent crimes committed by juvenile offenders. And keep in mind, only 28% of violent crimes against juveniles ever become known to the police.

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, how they feel, and how they learn. Children who are victims of, and witnesses to, violence are at a higher risk of developing behavioral problems, substance abuse, 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 vulnerable, feeling child. 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 whole picture. As a result, children fell through the cracks and didn't get the support they so desperately needed.

That is where new multi-disciplinary programs, like those NCSL promotes in the new Comprehensive Juvenile Justice Legislator's Guide, make all the difference. Through these multi-disciplinary programs, prosecutors are learning the language of clinicians, and clinicians are learning the language of prosecutors, and child victims and witnesses are benefitting from this new, integrated approach. It is only when law enforcement workers and social service professionals join together and recognize that prevention, intervention, and accountability efforts must reinforce each other, can real progress be made.

And progress must begin with prevention. 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 that all too often provide too little too late to our children in need.

What is prevention all about? Prevention is about reaching families early and helping new parents become capable care-givers. We must support home visitation programs that bring skilled professionals into homes and offer new families the assistance they need. I was delighted to see the home visitation programs developed by Dr. David Olds at the University of Colorado highlighted in your Guide to Preventing Juvenile Crime and Delinquency. As we've seen, programs that teach parenting skills yield results. Incidents of child abuse decrease, and studies report up to a 60% drop in destructive behavior among children served. 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. NCSL has become a leader in recognizing the critical importance of brain development research and its implications for juvenile crime prevention strategies. The neural connections that regulate stress responses are formed in the first 33 months of life, and, by age 2, the area of the brain that regulates self-control reaches 90% capacity. An infant living in an abusive environment can literally become "wired" for aggressive behavior. We must use this new child development information to devise more effective crime prevention efforts. 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. Again, NCSL has made great progress in developing blueprints for violence prevention by understanding the role of peer influences and bullying on teen violence. We need to help our children understand and to appreciate differences. As we too often learn the hard way, lessons in tolerance not learned early are lessons that are almost invariably lost.

Finally, prevention is about bringing an end to domestic violence. We need to 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 family 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, we know that there are, and will continue to be, children who will suffer and who will need our help. When even the best prevention efforts come too late, we must find ways to intervene effectively with children and their families.

Effective intervention programs must focus on at-risk kids and provide them with alternatives to a life of violence. We must support and promote programs that focus on job training, employment, juvenile mentoring, and after-school programs.

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.

The extraordinary Children's Advocacy Centers throughout the country are wonderful models of multi-disciplinary intervention programs that work. By enabling law enforcement officers, child protection workers, prosecutors, victim advocates, and therapists to coordinate interviews and referral services, children are better heard and better served, and perpetrators of violence against children are more likely to be brought to justice. The Department has committed over $ 4 million in funding to support CACs and I pledge to do all I can to continue that support.

Other multi-disciplinary intervention approaches -- like the child development-community policing programs, and the domestic abuse response teams, that partner mental health providers with law enforcement officers to respond to family violence incidents where children are present -- also have made a tremendous difference.

And 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 re-victimized by the very systems that were designed to help and protect them.

States, I believe, should enact legislation that help support our child victims and witnesses when they enter our courts and that make the justice system more responsive to their special needs. Important legislative reforms include allowing child victims and witnesses to testify through closed circuit TV, limiting the number of interviews they must endure, and supporting them with multi-disciplinary child abuse teams that offer trauma counseling and provide access to medical and mental health services.

Finally, we must do a better job of holding perpetrators of violence against children accountable. 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. Too often abusive conduct that would typically result in convictions of the most serious offenses if committed against an adult are charged and treated less seriously when the victim is a child. Because our homicide statutes are frequently incapable of justly dealing with these situations, perpetrators "get off" with inadequate sentences and they are free to hurt again.

State legislatures should work to reform our felony murder statutes to ensure that child murderers can be effectively prosecuted and subject to penalties that fit the seriousness of their crimes. Child abuse should be a predicate act for felony murder and create first degree murder liability for deaths resulting from a pattern or practice of child abuse. While at least ten States have adopted such laws, more States must follow. We must work to reform our laws to protect and value our children.

We must also consider reforms that address directly the evidentiary problems that so often arise in cases involving child victims. Often child abuse and other crimes against children are committed out of the presence of neutral witnesses. Trials in these cases often pit a child victim's credibility against that of an adult defendant who denies the offense. Knowledge that the parent has molested other children is frequently critical to the case, but withheld from juries. Federal Rules of Evidence 413 though 415 allow the introduction of evidence that the defendant has committed similar crimes in order to show predisposition. Many States have begun to adopt similar changes to their evidence rules allowing propensity evidence. A number of States also have amended their hearsay rules to allow credible past statements of a child, made to counselors and investigators, to be admitted into evidence. This rules can make a real difference in bringing perpetrators of crimes against children to justice, and I encourage more States to adopt these important evidentiary reforms.

During this conference, as the Children, Families and Heath Committee works to develop and enact effective prevention, intervention, and accountability strategies, I assure you that you will not labor alone. The Department of Justice is committed to assisting you all we can. Last December, I was honored to stand with President Clinton as he unveiled the Department of Justice's Children Exposed to Violence Initiative. The Initiative is dedicated to improving criminal justice system responses to children exposed to violence, supporting legislation that aids child victims and holds perpetrators accountable, and promoting promising programs around the country that assist child victims and witnesses and help break the cycle of violence.

The Initiative has produced a law enforcement monograph called "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 are addressing at this conference. The Department has also produced a legislative monograph, called "Children Exposed to Violence: Recommendations for State Justice Systems," that contains proposals for State legislation to better protect our children on the streets and in our justice system. I hope this Legislative Monograph can serve as a useful guide for every State legislature in the country. These materials are available at the display tables outside the room and I encourage you to put them to use in your home States.

Children exposed to violence is an issue that touches us all -- it is an under-appreciated problem, it is an American tragedy that scars our children, threatens the safety of our communities and puts our nation's future at risk. We have a great challenge ahead of us but we must be optimistic. We can help move this country in the right direction, closer to the day when our kids are no longer victims of, and witnesses to, violence, when our youth respond to conflict without destroying their lives and the lives of others, and when our children are given the support they need to thrive. Through the collective talent, dedication, and knowledge that exists in this room, I know we can make a real difference.

Thank you all for inviting me here today, and thank you for your hard work and dedication to keeping our children free from fear and safe from the start.