Remarks of Eric H. Holder, Jr.

Deputy Attorney General


The National Summit on Children Exposed to Violence

June 22, 1999

Good morning and, on behalf of President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Attorney General Reno, and Secretary Shalala, welcome to Safe from the Start: The National Summit on Children Exposed to Violence. Thank you Laurie for your kind introduction and to Shay and Ann and Pam for your personal commitment to this Summit and your dedication to the issue of children exposed to violence. Most importantly, thank you, our Summit participants, for joining us over the next three days. It is through your hard work that the issue of children exposed to violence has taken root, and many of the solutions to this critical issue lie in your hands. Thank you for being here and for sharing your skills, your commitment, and your expertise.

While we approach the problem of children exposed to violence from different perspectives, 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 this Summit, and dedicate ourselves, to four guiding principles:

1. To producing healthy, capable kids from the start

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

3. To intervene early and effectively when children tragically do become crime victims and witnesses, and

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

I would like to begin this Summit in a somewhat unusual way. 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 I would like you to focus your attention on just one child and see the incredible opportunities presented to all of us to make a difference.

The child is "Chris." Chris is a real child. You will first learn about Chris at the age of 4. And, tragically, you will see Chris grow up to be an adult offender in a large city in the Southeast. Chris’s history resembles too many of the children that I encountered as a judge and as the United States Attorney here 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’s “Justice System Rap Sheet.” It tells an alarming story of Chris’s path from child victim to adult offender. And, perhaps, an even more disturbing story of Chris’s 80 encounters with the criminal justice system, from ages 4 - 17, and the 80 lost opportunities for prevention and intervention.

We do not know what Chris’s life was like in the crucial period from ages 0 - 3 when he had no reported encounters with the justice system. And so we don't know about this boy's foundation. But we do know that by age 4, Chris first entered the system as a crime victim. 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. This chart reveals the sad truth that childhood victimization is a strong predictor of juvenile and adult criminality. Most important, we 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. We are here to talk about each step along the way. Each developmental stage Chris, and other children like him, go through, from 0 to 3, 4 to 6, 7 to 11, 12 to 17, presents unique prevention and intervention opportunities. Each stage requires a different perspective and a different set of tools to end the cycle of violence. 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. Together, we will spend the next three days exploring the most effective prevention, intervention, and accountability strategies. I hope that each of us leave this Summit better equipped to make a difference in the life of at least one child -- to cut the next child’s rap sheet short, or to eliminate it altogether -- so 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 caretakers.

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. A child like young Chris. 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 “caretakers” - 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 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 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 and nurturing caretakers. 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 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.

Finally prevention means keeping violent images out of our homes. It means installing the V-Chip that transmits television program ratings to our TV sets and that lets us make responsible decisions about what our children see, learn, and experience. Manufacturers are doing their part by installing the V-Chip. Broadcasters are also helping by voluntarily rating their programming and transmitting rating signals.

Technological advances don’t end with the V-Chip. There are new Internet filtering devices, “lockboxes” for cable, and "900" phone number protections to help parents guide what their children see, hear, and learn.

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, start smart, and keep our young people Safe from the Start.

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 team 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. At the close of the Summit you will receive an important new monograph, Breaking the Cycle of Violence: Recommendations to Improve the Criminal Justice Response to Child Victims and Witnesses, that describes some of these innovative intervention strategies.

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 this September.

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.

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.

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. 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 -- 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.

I have seen too many cases where a child has died as the result of repeated physical abuse by an alleged “caretaker” and the defendant successfully argues 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 inadequate sentences and they are free to hurt again.

At the end of this Summit you will receive 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 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 work in your States to enact these legislative reforms.

This morning, I have introduced you to some promising prevention, intervention, and accountability strategies. During the next two days, you will learn more about some of our country’s most promising programs -- initiatives like the Houston Child Advocacy Center, the Center for Child Protection at the San Diego Children’s Hospital, and the Dependency Court Intervention Program for Family Violence in Dade County, Florida. And then we will turn to you -- our nation’s experts, leaders in the fields of law enforcement, mental and physical health, domestic violence, early childhood education and development, and child protective services -- to develop a National Action Plan that integrates these programs and addresses the vital needs of children exposed to violence. The work of this Summit, this blueprint for local action, is critical to ensuring that our dialogue over these next three days does not remain in Washington, but is carried with you into communities across the nation.

Finally, on the third day of this Summit, we will convene again, this time with members of the press and national policy-makers to review and highlight our work. To make real change, we will need their help and support. In a special forum to be broadcast nationally, we will announce the progress we have made and begin the process of engaging all of this country’s citizens in our struggle to make children Safe from the Start.

This Summit is a beginning, not an end. As many of your know, this Summit is part of the Justice Department’s broader Children Exposed to Violence Initiative, that President Clinton launched last December. I hope that when this Summit ends your involvement in this Initiative will continue as we work together to develop and support efforts to reduce children's exposure to violence. I hope too that you will participate in the many State Forums following this Summit, supported by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, that will focus on the link between child abuse and juvenile delinquency.

Children exposed 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. Over the next three days we can 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. Today we take an important step in this journey.

Thank you for being here and for joining together in the important work of keeping our children Safe from the Start. Thank you very much.