Thank you, U.S. Attorney Ron Machen, for having me here today. And let me thank you for hosting this event to give faces and voices to those in our community who have been the victims of crime-- and to recognize individuals and organizations that have made a commitment to reshaping the futures of crime victims by seeking rights, resources, and protections needed to set them on the right path.
I grew up in the DC area, and, so, this commemoration has special meaning to me. There’s a lot that we do at the Justice Department that is unglamorous and trying—but, I value these moments which allow us all to celebrate the good, the courage, and the resolve in our community.
As the U.S. Associate Attorney General, one of my many hats is to oversee our grant programs: those administered by the Office on Violence Against Women, Community Oriented Policing (COPS), and our Office of Justice Programs, which is responsible for providing resources to tribal communities and our youth.
These programs are deeply personal to me. Last year, on the 15th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, I and my Justice Department colleagues took a nation-wide tour of college campuses to underscore the need to tackle sexual assault victimization among our young women. It is unacceptable that on college campuses today, Justice Department research tells us that, over the course of a college career, 1 in 4 women will be raped. That’s a flabbergasting statistic. We spoke with students about ways to prevent violence against women on college campuses, and the role that federal, state and local government, working with university staff, faculty and students, should play in ensuring that these crimes are taken seriously and that young victims have access to the resources and support that they need.
This year, I have become ensconced in focusing on our nation’s youth. We know we need to start our prevention efforts younger and younger, because the brain science tells us that the critical periods of learning and development come early and we know that young people are dating younger and younger and exposed to violence—involving peers, significant others, family members, and other adults—that can affect the course of their lives.
I will also note that this is a very personal undertaking for me. As a parent, one naturally wants to protect children, but I was stunned by the results of a National Survey on Children Exposed to Violence. We have now been able to document the extent to which the same kids are often victimized again and again. A child who is exposed to one type of violence is more likely to be exposed to other types of violence, or to be exposed multiple times.
More than 38 percent of children reported more than one direct victimization within the previous year. The study also found that a child who was physically assaulted in the past year would be five times as likely to also have been sexually victimized and more than four times as likely to also have been maltreated during that period. Children who should be getting treatment and being protected are instead being subjected to victimization once again.
We also learned, sadly, that children are more likely to be exposed to violence and crime than adults. For instance, a 2005 study showed that juveniles and young adults ages 12 to 19 were more than twice as likely to be the victims of violent crimes as the population as a whole.
And we know that children who are exposed to violence are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, suffer from depression and anxiety, have problems in school, experience or perpetuate dating violence, and engage in criminal behavior later in life.
This is why we have to stop these trends—and we have to stop them early.
I am proud to say that the Department of Justice is taking action.
Usually, when folks think of the Attorney General and DOJ, they think about protecting national security, about putting criminals in jail, about defending the President’s health care policies. But our job is public safety in all its forms – and I feel so fortunate to work for an Attorney General who has a vision of justice that starts with preventing crime before it happens, protecting our children, and ending cycles of violence and victimization. No matter what the disagreements are in Washington about funding for particular programs, we can all agree that every young person deserves the opportunity to grow and develop free from fear of violence.
One of the top priorities of this Department and a legacy item for Attorney General Holder is the Defending Childhood Initiative. Its genesis goes back more than a decade. When Eric Holder was Deputy Attorney General, he was struck by the research that showed that for every child that came in contact with the criminal justice system, there were 20, 30, 40, 100 moments in time where early intervention could have made a difference; had one of those missed opportunities been taken, one often would have found a child affected by violence at a young age who ultimately found their way to committing violence themselves, taking drugs, having trouble in school, etc. He began an initiative on children exposed to violence, which led to much of the critical research that has taught us about the impact of violence on young people.
When he returned as Attorney General, he began immediately where he left off, in what has now become the Defending Childhood initiative.
The Justice Department is committed to a comprehensive approach to a pervasive problem. With a fragmented approach, children exposed to violence can slip through the cracks of every service system. Other times, these children may be viewed as collateral damage in shattered lives – or, most tragically, when the sources of their trauma goes unnoticed, as troublemakers or delinquents. This initiative is about targeting and breaking the cycle of violence that affects our most vulnerable Americans.
The Defending Childhood initiative seeks to redefine how the Justice Department responds to children who experience violence, witness violence, or suffer ongoing negative ramifications from violence. We hope to harness resources from across the Department - and across other federal agencies and state, local, and tribal partners – to first, prevent exposure to violence when possible; second to mitigate the negative impact of violence when it does occur; and third, to develop knowledge and spread awareness that will ultimately improve our homes, cities, towns, and communities. We are integrating efforts to protect and assist children exposed to violence into everything we do at the Justice Department.
Through the Defending Childhood initiative, the Department of Justice is focused on implementing concrete knowledge to combat children’s exposure to violence. For years, we’ve worked to develop our knowledge about this issue and to promote promising approaches. Defending Childhood takes this a step further by calling for direct action in targeted communities.
We believe collaboration is key. This effort cuts across the entire Department, involving our Office of Justice Programs, Office on Violence Against Women, COPS, the FBI, and our US Attorneys’ Offices. We are also building partnerships with other federal agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education. But there are many critical partners outside the federal government. We’re working to inform and support law enforcement officers as first responders—since officers have the unique opportunity to help with the early identification of children exposed to violence, and we have encouraged their involvement.
We are tapping the knowledge of national experts and continuing to advance science in this area. One of our first steps in launching the Defending Childhood initiative was to host a meeting of a small group of national experts on this topic. Then, this past summer, several DOJ representatives attended the International Family Violence and Child Victimization Research Conference and met with the experts assembled there. We plan to continue to hold small group meetings and to use them to identify pressing issues and innovative approaches.
But by far our most important partners are many of you in this room– who daily face the problems of violence in your communities and work to combat it.
And, we at DOJ and those who live in the nation’s capital are lucky to have the leadership of U.S. Attorney Ron Machen and his dedicated team.
Many years ago, the office established a specialized Victim Witness Assistance Unit as a stand-alone section, and today, it is the largest victim-witness program in all of the United States Attorneys’ Offices. Comprised of 26 highly trained individuals, the Victim Witness Assistance Unit assists thousands of victims and witnesses each year, ensuring that they are aware of and are accorded their rights, and that they receive the support they need during the criminal justice process.
Today, I’d like to acknowledge the hard work of the members of the Victim Witness Assistance Unit and the other victim service professionals here today who work often heroically, and with little recognition, to advance victims’ rights, defend our youngest members of the community, and pursue justice. Please know that your professionalism and your tireless efforts on behalf of victims are critically important to the Department’s mission. Your work makes a difference – you help people through some of their most difficult times – and I’d like to take a moment to thank you for all you do on behalf of victims and survivors.
Events like this remind us that the fight against crime, violence and victimization is everyone’s fight.
Thanks to you all for being here today– to the victims and survivors: for your tenacity to wake up every day, speak out, and be part of an ongoing fight to protect and assist others; to the victim assistance professionals, good Samaritans and organizations here today: for your dedication, vigor and selflessness to reach out in a time of need.
Together, we can usher in a new era of service and support of the most vulnerable among us; and, in doing so, we can transform the country that we love for the better—one child, or one victim, at a time.