The Massachusetts Youth Violence Summit:

A Community Dialogue on Safer Schools and Neighborhoods

Boston, Massachusetts

September 13, 1999

Good morning. Thank you, Senator Kennedy, for your kind introduction, your remarkable work convening this summit, and your tireless dedication to protecting our nation's children. Thank you also to President Sargent for hosting this summit and gathering together such an extraordinary group of individuals committed to making our families, schools, and communities safe places where our children can grow up free from fear and violence.

I am truly delighted to be here with you today. Two and a half months ago, at President Clinton's direction, 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. 150 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 violence, promote innovative intervention strategies, and strengthen law enforcement's tools to hold perpetrators of violence against children accountable for their acts. I am delighted to see so many of you who made the national Safe from the Start summit a success participating here today.

The Washington summit was only a beginning. As we all know, while national conferences serve a role, the real work is done not in Washington, but in our communities -- program by program, family by family, child by child. That is why, at the end of the Summit in June, I issued a call to action, urging communities throughout the nation to lead the way and convene state summits to address this vital issue.

It was no surprise that the first leader to step up to the plate, willing to accept that challenge and host the first community summit on youth violence, was Senator Edward Kennedy who participated in the national summit. Senator Kennedy, you have long been a bold leader in youth violence prevention, dedicated to protecting our nation's children. You have my deep respect and appreciation for all you have done to lead the fight against youth violence here in Massachusetts and throughout the country.

Each one of us in this room -- each police officer, prosecutor, mental health professional, community worker, parent, and young person -- 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. Today, 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.

This morning, as we set our sights on our 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.

The child is "Chris." Chris's life is tragically similar to the lives of children I encountered as a judge and as the U.S. Attorney in D.C., and so like the lives of many children you see everyday. On the monitors around the room, you will see Chris’s “Justice System Rap Sheet.” It tells the alarming story of Chris’s path from child victim to adult offender. And, 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.

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. 80 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 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. 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. 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. Today you begin the critical work of joining together, across disciplines, to prevent and reduce children’s exposure to violence. Only by joining together can we put an end to this tragic cycle.

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 appreciate differences. As we too often learn the hard way, lessons in tolerance not learned early are lessons almost invariably lost.

Massachusetts leads the nation in promoting tolerance and diversity programs. The National Center for Hate Crime Prevention in Newton, for example, has made great strides promoting best practices to prevent juvenile hate crimes and to teach tolerance.

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, 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.

The Boston Police Department's Operation Ceasefire has gone a long way toward preventing juvenile firearm violence by keeping guns out of the hands of violent juveniles, moving swiftly at the first sign of violence, and providing youth with clear, credible information about the prosecutorial consequences of continued violence. I commend these efforts and encourage departments around the country to follow your lead.

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.

Again, Massachusetts is leading the nation in this effort. The Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center is a model example of a program that provides effective counseling, advocacy, and outreach services to young children who witness family violence. The program's partnership with the Boston Police Department, providing training to officers on issues relating to children and violence, has become a national model of an intervention program that works.

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. Boston's extraordinary SafeFutures Initiative, does just that, by focusing 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.

Multidisciplinary intervention approaches -- like the Chelsea Child Development - Community Policing project that teams mental health providers with law enforcement officers at every crime scene -- have made a tremendous difference. So have Child Advocacy Centers, 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 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 multidisciplinary 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, more states must follow suit. Our laws must be reformed to protect and value our children.

Today, as you 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 the efforts of this great Commonwealth. 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 here in Massachusetts and 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 will address today. 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 will be distributed today and I hope you will put them to use to aid the children of Massachusetts.

Children exposed to 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, 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. Today in Massachusetts we take an important step in this journey.

Thank you for being here and for joining together in the important work of keeping our schools and communities free from fear, and our nation's children safe from the start.

Thank you very much.