Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Deputy Attorney General
Lunch and Keynote Address
Child Welfare In The District of Columbia
The 21st Century
Washington, DC
November 17, 1999

Good afternoon. I am truly delighted to be here with you today to discuss the issue of children exposed to abuse, neglect and 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, abuse and violence.

As many of you know, this summer, as part of the Department's Children Exposed to Violence Initiative, the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services hosted the first national summit on children exposed to violence in Washington, D.C. One hundred and fifty of our nation's leading experts in law enforcement, mental health, education, social services, and domestic violence joined forces to identify the most effective ways to prevent children's exposure to abuse and 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 proud of the work that came out of the Summit and the Department's Children Exposed to Violence Initiative, and I look forward to discussing with you some of our proposed law enforcement reforms, legislative initiatives, and new programs.

But our work in Washington is only a beginning. As we all know, while national conferences and initiatives serve a role, the real work is done 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, is so vitally important. Many of you have devoted your careers to stopping child victimization. It is through your dedication and commitment that children are helped and lives are changed. You have my deep respect and admiration for your exceptional service to our children who are most in need.

Each one of us who works with children in the abuse and neglect system or the criminal justice system -- each police officer, each case worker, each prosecutor, each mental health professional, each victim/witness coordinator, each child interview specialist, each judge, 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:

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.

This afternoon, as we set our sights on these three objectives, I would like to begin 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 children you see every day.

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.

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. Young people, regardless of race or social status, in urban and rural communities alike, are much more likely to become victims of crime. The statistics are alarming. 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 ˝ 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.

Children who are victims of, or witnesses to, violence suffer devastating consequences. As you well know, the scars are not only physical. Exposure to violence affects how children see, how they feel, and how they 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, 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.

This is where Children's Advocacy Centers' multi-disciplinary efforts make all the difference. I've seen this first hand. When I served as the U.S. Attorney in D.C., we hired clinicians to serve as child interview specialists and advocates, created a court school program for children who had to testify, and worked with many others to develop a Children's Advocacy Center. We began to reach out to emergency room physicians across the city so that we could better understand each others' roles and share the expertise each profession can bring to the effort to protect children. Working with the Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C., we created a forensic rotation program for fifth-year fellows in their child and adolescent psychiatry program. As a result, the prosecutors learned the language of clinicians and the clinicians learned the language of prosecutors - and the child victims and witnesses received the benefit of this new, integrated approach. It is only when law enforcement workers and social services 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. 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 to appreciate differences. As we too often learn the hard way, lessons in tolerance not learned early are lessons that are almost invariably lost.

Prevention is about keeping guns out of criminals hands and out of our children's hands. And yes it is about closing the dangerous gun show loophole, it is about making sure that child safety locks are sold with every gun, it is about ensuring that violent juvenile offenders are not able to turn around and buy a gun on their 21st birthdays, and it is also about 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.

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 400 Children's Advocacy Centers around the country are the nation's shining 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 projects in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and throughout the country that team mental health providers with law enforcement officers at every crime scene also have made a tremendous difference. So have Child Interview Specialists, Court School programs, and training initiatives that help law enforcement professionals identify abuse-related injuries and understand the psychological impact of abuse.

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 revictimized by the very systems that were designed to help and protect them.

States 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 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.

We must 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 some states have adopted such laws, including D.C., more states must follow. Our laws must be reformed to protect and value our children.

This week, as you return to work to develop effective prevention, intervention, and accountability strategies, I assure you that you will not work 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 abuse and 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 being used around the country. The Department has also produced a legislative monograph, called "Children Exposed to Violence: Recommendations for State Justice Systems," that contains proposals for new State legislation to better protect our children on the streets and in our justice system. These materials are available through our Office of Victims of Crime and I encourage you to put them to use in Washington, D.C.

Children exposed to abuse and violence is an issue that touches us all -- it is an under-appreciated problem, 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, abuse, neglect and 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.

Thank you very much.