Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.

Remarks at

Boys to Men: A Roundtable on Improving Access to Health Care

Academy for Educational Development

Washington, DC

October 19, 1999


Good afternoon. Thank you George Garrow for your kind introduction. I have been affiliated with the National Organization of Concerned Black Men for several years and am proud and honored to be part of the association and its fine work.

It is a pleasure to be with you here today. In addition to NOCBM, I would like to thank Opening Doors, The HSC Foundation, the DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research, and Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC for sponsoring this important roundtable discussion.

Throughout this conference, you will have an opportunity to reflect on the critical barriers that stand between young people and their healthy development. Some of these barriers are cultural and others center on a basic lack of information in our communities about how the health care system functions and where a family can get the care it needs. I know your discussions will lead to new ideas and new resources for removing the barriers and reducing the obstacles that stand between adolescents and the services they deserve.

This topic, the health of adolescent boys, is one to which I have both a personal and professional commitment. As a father and as a husband of a doctor, I know how this issue can affect families, and I understand the myriad of consequences that result from poor health care.

As a law enforcement official, I have another concern as well and that is the delinquency and violence in young boys' lives.

Delinquency, violence, and adolescent health are inextricably linked.

The comprehensive public health and law enforcement approach that the Department of Justice uses to address juvenile crime and violence looks not just at the perpetrator, but also at the societal factors that influence an individual's behavior.

All across the country, people concerned about the healthy development of young people are searching for answers to juvenile violence and delinquency. Many young people, especially young African-American boys, are falling through the cracks and are failing to develop their potential to mature into healthy, productive citizens. Violence and our fears in confronting it are crippling our ability to nurture and support the next generation into adulthood. Let me explain.

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%.

But we need not and must not stand by helpless. We can do more, and we must do more. Each developmental stage of a child presents unique prevention and intervention opportunities. At each stage, we must work to end the cycle of violence. We must prevent early victimization, and 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.

To put this issue in perspective, I want to summarize a few statistics from the Department's new National Report on Juvenile Offenders and Victims. It presents information from more than 50 sources and describes juvenile offending and victimization along with the juvenile court and correctional response.

First -- the Victims: Who are They?

  • In 1996, serious violent victimizations were more than 2 times more likely to occur among males than females ages 12 to 17.

  • Older youth, ages 15 to 17, were more likely than their younger counterparts to be victims of serious violent crime.

  • Juvenile victims over the age of 12 were more likely to be male and black.

  • Though blacks accounted for only 15 % of the juvenile population, black juvenile homicides outnumbered white juvenile murders by 5 to 1 between 1988 and 1995.

  • And all but 1 of the juvenile homicide victims in Washington, DC between 1993 and 1995 were African-American.

Who are the victims? They are male and they are teenagers and they are black.

The Offenders: Who are They?

  • Between 1980 and 1997, 93 % of known juvenile homicide offenders were male.

  • 88 % of these juvenile offenders were age 15 or older.

  • More than half of these offenders were black.

Who are the offenders? They are male and they are teenagers and they are black.

Who are the juveniles in our courts and correctional facilities?

  • Males are involved in 80% of delinquency cases each year.

  • In 1996, black juveniles were referred to juvenile court at a rate more than double that for whites.

  • More than 60% of juveniles in residential placement were minority youth.

  • Of youth newly admitted to State prison, 60 % were black.

  • Black juveniles are over-represented at all stages of the juvenile justice system compared with their proportion in the population.

Who are the juveniles in our courts and correctional facilities? They are male, they are teenagers, and they are black.

These statistics are startling. But we must remember that there are faces behind each statistic; faces of real children. As a judge and later as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, I saw too many children, too many young minority boys, suffer from violent crime and continue the cycle of violence and become offenders themselves.

But trends and statistics are not destiny. We can successfully intervene to reverse them by identifying positive and negative factors in communities, families, schools, and peer groups. We can then equip a child with the skills to transcend his circumstances and become a healthy, productive individual.

It is so important how a young boy develops. Each moment in his life has an impact on him and ultimately on the community in which he lives. That is why we can and must play a part. We must ask ourselves, "How do we introduce our boys to the world?" It is an important question.

As Dr. William Pollack, a noted child psychologist, states in his book, Real Boys: Rescuing Our Boys from the Myth of Boyhood, "We expect them to step outside the family [and community] too abruptly, with little preparation for what lies in store, too little emotional support, not enough opportunity to express their feelings, and often with no option of going back or changing course. We don't tolerate any stalling or listen to any whining. That's because we believe that disconnection is important, even essential, for a boy to 'make the break' and become a man."

This disconnection -- from family and then from self -- needs to be reconnected. We must connect with our young people early in their lives and continue our efforts well into their adolescence. Starting early and remaining a consistent part in the lives of our youth will result in safer and healthier young people.

And we must make these connections at the earliest stages of life with nurse home visitation programs for newborns at risk of abuse and neglect. We need to prepare new parents to become nurturing caretakers by bringing nurses and skilled professionals into the home and offering parents the help they need. By enhancing parenting skills, a family's future starts on a solid foundation .

We make these connections by preparing and fostering children in the first years of their lives. Ages zero to three are so critical in a child's development, and through programs like early Headstart, quality child care initiatives, and family strengthening we build resiliency in our children.

We make these connections through 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.

We make these connections through mentoring. Well-designed mentoring programs can reduce juvenile alcohol and drug use, improve school performance, and prevent youth from getting involved in crime and violent behavior.

We make these connections by providing positive activities in which our young people can participate. We know what works to prevent crime among older children. Studies show that more than 50 % of violent crime occurs after school between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Providing activities for youth in the after-school hours and on weekends can reduce youth crime and give children nurturing environments in which to thrive.

We make these connections with community assessment centers. These centers provide a centralized point of intake and assessment for juveniles who have, or are likely to, come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Through them, we are able to determine what risks a youth poses, but also what needs he has. We can understand the juvenile's circumstances and treatment needs, arrange for detention and release to a safe and appropriate setting, facilitate access to services, manage or monitor appropriate treatment and rehabilitation services, and make more efficient use of law enforcement, juvenile justice, and treatment resources.

Families, communities, public and private organizations, and the government must realize that they all have a role to play in helping youth become productive members of our society. That role is to build, nurture, and sustain the connections of young people to their families, their schools, and their communities. And for boys, in particular, this is so crucial. As tough, cool, and independent as they may seem, they yearn for those relationships, those connections.

As policy makers, educators, members of the health care community, and advocates, we all can play strong, visible roles in reducing violence, creating a safer, healthier society and building and strengthening those connections.

The more connected our young people become, the healthier they will be -- psychologically, physically, and spiritually.

Thank you for being here and joining together in the important work of keeping our children safe and healthy.