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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the Defending Childhood Task Force Public Meeting


Baltimore, MD
United States

Good morning. Thank you, Dean Haddon – for your kind words, and for all that you and your staff have done to help bring this extraordinary group of leaders, experts, and advocates together. I also want to thank the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law for hosting today’s meeting and providing a forum for this critical discussion.

Thank you all for your participation – and for your commitment to protecting and empowering the most precious and vulnerable among us: our children.

At every level of today’s Justice Department, this work is a priority. And I’m particularly grateful to my colleagues in the Office of Justice Programs, the Office on Violence Against Women, and the COPS Office for their leadership in developing and advancing many of the Department’s most innovative and effective efforts – including the new Defending Childhood Initiative and the new Defending Childhood Task Force.

Today, as the 13 members of this Task Force gather for the first time, we are launching a new chapter in the work of protecting our young people from violence and harm – and ensuring that, in this country, every child has a safe place to live, to learn, and to grow.

This Task Force is comprised of renowned experts on the issues surrounding children exposed to violence. Its members work to improve the lives of children in large cities, rural towns, and Tribal communities. They represent the legal, medical, research, law enforcement, faith, and survivor communities. And while they bring a diversity of perspectives to their work, they all share a common passion for the mission that brings us all together today.

On behalf of our nation’s Department of Justice, as well as President Obama and the entire Administration – I want to thank each of our Task Force members – especially our co-chairs, Joe Torre and Robert Listenbee, for devoting your time, energy, and expertise to this important work.

And I want to thank everyone here for supporting their efforts – in particular, the courageous individuals who have come to share their personal stories with us. We look forward to hearing from you – and to learning from you.

I also want to recognize two key members of our nation’s United States Attorney Community – my good friends, Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland, and Ron Machen, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. Thank you for joining us – and for all that you’ve done to strengthen the Department’s groundbreaking Defending Childhood Initiative.

The work that you are leading in each of your offices has helped us better understand, and more effectively address, the threats that children across this region are facing. The cases you’ve advanced, the lives you’ve touched and enriched, and the communities you’ve helped to transform remind each of us that – in the often difficult work of improving circumstances and outcomes for young people who are at risk and in need – solutions are possible. Progress is possible. And the changes that we hope to see are possible – if we are willing to think creatively, to act collaboratively, and to enlist the help of a variety of partners.

That’s what this Task Force is all about – bringing a wealth of experience and talent together to focus on one of the greatest public safety epidemics of our time: children’s exposure to violence.

Like many of you – for me, protecting the health and safety of our children has been both a personal and professional concern for decades. As a prosecutor, as a judge, as a United States Attorney, and as Deputy Attorney General, addressing the causes and remedying the consequences of children’s exposure to violence was a prominent part of my daily work. Today, as Attorney General – and as a parent of three teenagers – it remains a top priority.

Over the years, I’ve learned that we must confront this problem head-on – by clearly and thoroughly understanding what we, and our children, are up against. During the late 1990’s, when I served as Deputy Attorney General, I had the opportunity to work with leading researchers to take an in-depth look at the problem of children’s exposure to violence. We learned that – whether a child was a witness to, or a direct victim of, violence – the experience was associated with long-term physical, psychological, and emotional harm, as well as a higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse later in life. We discovered that children exposed to violence fail in school more often than other kids – and are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety, and other post-traumatic disorders. We found out that children exposed to violence are more likely to develop chronic diseases and to have trouble forming emotional attachments – and they are even more likely to go on to commit violent crimes, and to come into contact with our juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Although our understanding of the nature and impact of this problem increased dramatically in the 1990’s, we didn’t know how prevalent it really was.  Back then, we didn’t have comprehensive data that could give us the full story about where – exactly – violence touches the lives of children across age groups and across settings.  And we didn’t have the research to tell us about the cumulative effect of exposure to violence.

Now, we do.  And now, more than ever before, we must act.

In 2009, during my first year as Attorney General, the Justice Department released findings from the National Survey on Children Exposed to Violence – the most comprehensive survey, to date, on the extent of violence, crime, and abuse in children’s lives. Research showed that the majority of our kids – more than 60 percent of them – have been exposed to violence, crime, and abuse.

These patterns of violence can take many forms – from pushing, hitting, and bullying, to witnessing or experiencing gun, knife, gang, domestic, or sexual violence. And they aren’t limited to any one region, community, or demographic group. Exposure can happen at home, in the streets, during school, or on the Internet, where children face serious and unprecedented threats.

No matter where you live, today – across this country – children are more likely to be exposed to violence and crime than adults. This problem has significant consequences for individuals, families, and entire communities. It affects each one of us. And all of us have a role to play in effectively addressing it.

We simply cannot ignore the needs of our children.  A justice system – and a society – that fails to make protecting children a top priority is failing in its most fundamental responsibility. That’s why failure is not – and has never been – an option. And because of the work of leaders and partners in and beyond this room, today, it’s not even a probability.

Despite the challenges we face – and the scale and seriousness of the crisis we’re working to address – we have good cause for optimism.  We know that it is possible – in fact, it is within our power – to help the kids who need us most. Research has shown that quality intervention programs can foster healthy child development and, in many cases, counter the negative effects of violence.  We’ve also seen that early interventions with children can help them avoid repeat victimization and future involvement with the criminal justice system.

At the Department of Justice, we have made an historic commitment to applying this knowledge. I’m proud that – through our landmark Defending Childhood Initiative – we now are directing resources for the express purpose of reducing children’s exposure to violence, raising awareness of its ramifications, and advancing scientific inquiry on its causes and characteristics. 

Offices covering a broad range of issues – from violence against women and juvenile justice, to community-based policing and victims of crime – are actively engaged in coordinating the Department’s efforts to prevent children’s exposure to violence. And we are building on existing partnerships with the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, as well as with our law enforcement partners in the field and with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices across the country. 

We also have embraced the reality that, while the federal government has a responsibility to act, our efforts cannot be successful without local police officers, community leaders, teachers, coaches, principals, and – above all – parents.  And we are working to ensure that professionals who work with children are sufficiently trained to identify those who’ve been exposed to violence, and to respond to them appropriately. 

To be effective – and to make the progress that our children need and deserve – we need the full attention, not only of the federal government, but also of state, tribal, local, community, non-profit, and private sector partners. Indeed, we must engage the broadestpossible spectrum of allies in order to prevent violence against and among our young people. And we must draw on the expertise – not only of policymakers, attorneys, and advocates – but also of young people themselves. If we are smart enough to listen to them, I’m certain that they can make a meaningful difference in strengthening our work.

In addition to their perspectives, we also need more information about current approaches. We need to know what works, and what doesn’t, so that policymakers and practitioners can make informed decisions about how to tailor solutions to meet the needs of individual communities.

That’s why this Task Force represents such a powerful, and promising, step forward. I’m counting on its 13 members to carefully study this problem – and to provide guidance to the Department, and the public, on how we can improve our response to this issue and implement the solutions we need.

If history is any indicator, Task Forces like this one can help to inspire extraordinary progress. For example, the President’s Task Force on Victims of Crime, which was formed in 1982, led to the creation of the Office for Victims of Crime – and prompted a sea change in how the criminal justice system treats victims. It paved the way for victims to become valued partners in the prosecution process, and helped them attain the rights they deserve. Specifically, that Task Force recommended legislation to provide federal funding to assist state crime victim compensation programs – and their work helped to advance the passage of the Victims of Crime Act of 1984.

That same year, the Attorney General’s Task Force on Family Violence helped to raise awareness about the profound, nationwide impact of domestic violence. A number of its recommendations – such as the need to recognize family violence as criminal activity, and the need to develop coordinated, multi-disciplinary community responses to domestic violence – became the core principles of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.

Today, with the Defending Childhood Task Force, this tradition continues. I am confident that its members will strengthen the work that’s underway to raise awareness about the issue of children exposed to violence – and that they’ll play a critically important role in informing responses to this national epidemic.

In the coming months, this Task Force will hold four field hearings across the country to learn first-hand how violence is affecting our nation’s children. By December 1st of next year, they will present me with a report documenting their findings and laying out recommendations for actions that the Department – and our partners – can take to improve the current system of care for our children.

By hearing from and working closely with experts and practitioners, Task Force members will be uniquely positioned to add to our base of knowledge about how we can better support and safeguard children across the country. By giving us a better grasp of the prevalence and consequences of exposure to violence, and by showing us what works in mitigating its effects, I have every expectation that this effort will help us to better protect our children.

Of course, the real difference will come from the work that so many of you do in your neighborhoods and communities. When you respond to a domestic violence call where a young person is present; when you work to remove a child from an abusive setting; when you counsel a student who has been bullied; or when you recognize – from the bench – a lifetime of trauma in the delinquent acts of a teenager – you have become part of the solution.

And because of you, I believe that – together – we can transform America for the better – one child at a time.

To that end, I am now pleased to give the Defending Childhood Task Force its charge:

The members of the Attorney General’s Defending Childhood Task Force will conduct four hearings nationwide to learn from survivors, key practitioners, policymakers, academics, and the public about the extent and impact of children’s exposure to violence in the United States.  The members will seek information about promising practices and intervention and prevention strategies that deserve increased attention from the Department of Justice, other federal agencies, and state, local, and tribal governments.

Based on the information collected at these hearings, the Defending Childhood Task Force will develop a final report to me, presenting high-level policy recommendations which will serve as a blueprint for preventing and addressing children’s exposure to violence as victims and witnesses, and for mitigating the negative effects experienced by children exposed to violence across the United States.

Thank you all, once again, for your service – and for your willingness to accept this critical responsibility. As you work to fulfill your duties, I encourage you to think creatively and broadly – and to challenge us all to consider what can be accomplished through innovation, collaboration, and a commitment to the young people who need us most – and who are depending on us to act.

Now, it is my privilege to introduce the Co-Chairs of the Defending Childhood Task Force, and to turn the meeting over to them.

Joe Torre is Chairman of the Joe Torre Safe At Home Foundation. Its mission is to develop educational programs that will end the cycle of domestic violence and save lives. In the nine years since its inception, the Foundation has educated thousands of students, parents, teachers, and school faculty about the devastating effects of domestic violence. Currently reaching kids in nine schools and two community centers in the New York City metropolitan area and Los Angeles, “Margaret’s Place” – a tribute to Mr. Torre’s mother, Margaret – provides middle and high school students with a “safe room” to talk to each other and a professional counselor trained in domestic violence intervention and prevention about violence-related issues.

Since February 2011, Mr. Torre has served as Major League Baseball’s Executive Vice President for Baseball Operations. Previously, he was a Major League Manager for 29 seasons, 12 of them with the New York Yankees, whom he led to the playoffs every year, including six World Series appearances and four World Series Championships. During his 17-year playing career, Mr. Torre compiled a .297 batting average, 2,342 hits, 252 home runs, and 1,185 RBIs. He hit over .300 five times in his career, was a nine-time All-Star and was the 1971 National League MVP.

Robert Listenbee, Jr. has been a trial lawyer at the Defender Association of Philadelphia since 1986, and Chief of the Juvenile Unit since 1997. He currently serves on several boards and committees that advocate for the rights and interests of children. These include the Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Subcommittee of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD). He is also a member of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Committee (JJDPC) of PCCD, which advises Pennsylvania’s governor on juvenile justice policy.

He serves on the advisory board of the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) and has participated in NJDC-sponsored statewide assessments of the juvenile justice systems in Indiana and Louisiana. He is also actively involved in the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change Initiative in Pennsylvania. He is Team Leader of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Indigent Defense Action Network (PA-JIDAN) and President of JDAP, a statewide nonprofit professional organization established in 2006 to advocate for the rights and interests of Pennsylvania’s children and to speak on behalf of juvenile defenders in the Commonwealth.

Robert received his B.A. from Harvard University and his J.D. from the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley.

Joe and Robert, thank you both once again. I wish you all a productive day – and I look forward to hearing about, and continuing, this critical discussion.

Updated August 18, 2015