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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the Harvard School of Public Health Event


Boston, MA
United States

Thank you, Dean [Julio] Frenk.  It’s a pleasure to be here.  And it’s a privilege to join with so many leaders and distinguished members of the Harvard community.  I especially want to thank Associate Dean [Jay] Winsten for moderating our discussion and, more importantly, for his leadership and friendship.  More years ago than either of us would like to say, when I served as Washington, D.C.’s United States Attorney during one of the city’s most dangerous eras, Jay and I worked together on several initiatives to reduce youth violence and promote youth mentoring.  Today, Jay – and several other members of the Harvard faculty, including Dr. Felton Earls, who I’m glad to see here – are valued partners of the Department of Justice.  And all of us will benefit from the perspective and expertise that they bring to today’s discussion.

I look forward to hearing from him – and from all of you – about the ways that we must, and will, strengthen our approach to addressing one of greatest public safety – and public health – epidemics of our time: children’s exposure to violence.

No matter your area of interest or expertise, this issue is at the forefront of the goals that we share.  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 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 an observer 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.  They’re more likely to develop chronic diseases and to have trouble forming emotional attachments.  And they’re more likely to commit acts of violence themselves.  In short, we learned that violence affects the brain as much as it affects the body and spirit.

But we still didn’t know how prevalent the problem 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.

During my first year as Attorney General, the Justice Department released findings from our National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, which revealed that the majority of our kids – more than 60 percent of them – have been exposed to some type of crime, abuse, or violence.  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. 

I was startled to learn – in my review of the most recent Boston Youth Survey produced by Harvard’s own Youth Violence Prevention Center – that, in one month, more than seven in ten of the young men surveyed said they had fired a gun or were punched, kicked, choked, beaten up, shot at, or attacked with a weapon.  And more than a quarter of these young people said they felt unsafe in MBTA buses, trains, and stations. 

But 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 – and affects each one of us.  That’s why effectively addressing it must become our common cause.

Many of you have already pledged your best efforts in this work.  And I’m here today to tell you that I will not ignore the needs of the most precious and most vulnerable among us.  A justice system – and a society – that fails to make protecting children a top priority is failing in its most fundamental responsibility.

But the good news is that, today, there is good cause for optimism.  Quality intervention programs have shown clear benefits in fostering healthy child development and countering the negative effects of violence.  In other words, it is possible – and it is within our power – to help the kids who need us most.

At the Department of Justice, we have made an historic commitment to this work.  I’m proud that – through our Defending Childhood Initiative – we 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.  By playing a convening role in the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, we’re assisting teams of community stakeholders and leaders in selected cities across the country – including Boston – in implementing comprehensive, researched-based violence prevention and reduction plans.

But there are several additional steps we must take.

First of all, we need to recognize that children’s exposure to violence is a public health issue.  And it demands a public health response.  From my colleagues and partners in this field – and from my wife, who works as a physician – I’ve learned a great deal about the advantages of adopting a public health approach when addressing problems, including criminal justice problems.  This means calling attention not only to a problem’s symptoms, but also its source.  It means focusing on prevention; asking which populations are most vulnerable; and determining how behaviors spreads. 

Second, we must address the problem holistically, not in fragments.  We need the type of success that’s been achieved at the Boston Medical Center, where pediatric providers have come together with mental health professionals and attorneys to ensure that all of a child’s interests are protected.

At the Justice Department, 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 efforts to prevent children’s exposure to violence.  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.  And we are now teaming up with organization such as the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges to broaden our perspective and implement the comprehensive solutions we need.

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. 

Third, we must ensure that professionals within each discipline are sufficiently trained to identify children who’ve been exposed to violence, and to assist with remediation.  These signs, as you know, may be as obvious as a physical injury or as subtle as a mild cognitive impairment.  Of course, neither is a definitive sign of exposure.  But a process for screening can be effective in determining what may be wrong – and how best to treat it.

Fourth, and finally, we must meet this problem with all the resources that sound science can bring to bear.  Restoring scientific decision-making at the Justice Department is one of my highest priorities.  And while research has told us much about the incidence and impact of violence, it hasn’t yet told us everything.  We need more information about what works – and what doesn’t – so that policymakers and practitioners can make informed decisions about how to tackle the problem and tailor approaches to meet the needs of individual communities.  That’s one of the reasons that the work currently underway here in Boston is so exciting.  Earlier today, I met with your local Youth Violence Prevention Team – a diverse and dedicated group – and I have no doubt that their work will make a powerful difference for communities and young people across Massachusetts, and far beyond.

Here – before another group of partners – I’m reminded of something that this school’s former dean, Harvey Fineberg, once said:  “If a medical school is akin to a school of law, then a school of public health is like a school of justice.”

Since the turn of the last century, the Harvard School of Public Health community has confronted every great public health crisis of our time with the same urgency and sense of mission that has always inspired our nation’s pursuit of justice.  Over the years, you’ve made critical contributions to the field, to our communities, and to our entire country.

Through the Youth Violence Prevention Center, the Boston Data Project, and other initiatives, you’ve done the same for children’s exposure to violence.  By your very presence here today, you’ve demonstrated your commitment to solving a problem that, simply put, will determine the future course of our country.  I share your commitment.  And I believe that, together, we can transform America for the better – one child at a time.

On behalf of the Department of Justice, I look forward to working with you – and to continuing the critical discussion that we’re beginning today.

Thank you.

Updated December 16, 2016