Thank you, Attorney General [Martha] Coakley. It’s a pleasure to be with you, and it’s a privilege to join with so many distinguished leaders, partners, and members of the Kennedy family in celebrating the extraordinary contributions of one of my personal heroes – Robert F. Kennedy.
I’m also grateful for this opportunity to salute the outstanding work that – for more than four decades – the Robert F. Kennedy Children's Action Corps has been leading to protect and empower America’s children. As we just saw in that video presentation, for many young people, you are working miracles. And you are carrying on – and carrying forward – Robert Kennedy’s commitment to security, opportunity, and justice for all.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department celebrated his extraordinary legacy – as members of the Kennedy family joined with current and former Justice Department employees to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s swearing-in as our nation’s 64th Attorney General. That day, as we rededicated ourselves to the service that defined his life and career, we discussed how proud Robert Kennedy surely would be to see the nation that he helped to create – and the extraordinary progress that’s been made in recent decades. But we could not – and we will not – ignore the unfortunate fact that – half a century after Robert Kennedy began his historic tenure at the Justice Department – our nation’s long struggle to overcome disparities, to bridge long-standing divisions, and to eradicate violence has not yet ended.
In 2011, we still have not overcome many of the challenges that impelled Robert Kennedy to action. And we still have far too many children in desperate need of our help – especially those who have experienced and witnessed violence.
Throughout my life and career, I have seen the devastating effects that violence can have on young people. And I have learned that exposure to violence early in life – as a victim or as a witness – often has devastating, long-term consequences – including increased odds for depression, substance abuse, and violent behavior into adulthood.
As Attorney General – and, above all, as the father of three teenage children – I am determined to help find the solutions – and to forge the partnerships – that we need to prevent and combat children’s exposure to violence.
In thinking about this work, I am reminded of a question that Robert Kennedy asked in 1967, when he traveled to the Mississippi Delta. After stepping into a dilapidated shack, he came upon a young boy. Repeatedly, he tried to talk with this child. But his words were met with a blank, almost lifeless, gaze. Although that little boy had been born in the most powerful and affluent nation on Earth, he had been silenced – by hunger, by overwhelming need, by desperation, by hopelessness.
With tears in his eyes, Robert Kennedy turned away from that child and famously asked, “How can a country like this allow it?”
Today, his words remain before us. And that question – How can a country like this allow it? – is still being asked, because people like you are still asking it.
You – and other children’s advocates, community leaders, elected officials, and concerned citizens nationwide – are challenging our nation to confront indefensible conditions, as well as persistent, complex challenges. And you are calling on every American to stand up for the values that have made our nation great – and for the young people now in need of our help.
I am proud to stand with you. I believe that our country will be defined, and its future will be determined, by the support that we provide – and the doors that we open – for our children. In looking toward – and planning for – this future, we do not have a moment to waste. In fact, in many communities, the problem of youth violence has reached crisis proportions.
Today, the majority of America’s children – more than 60 percent of them – have been exposed to crime, abuse, neglect, and violence. We know that 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.
But, as the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps has proven, it is possible – and it is within our power – to help the kids who need us most.
So long as I am Attorney General, I pledge that protecting our children from violence will remain a top priority for me, for the Justice Department, and for this Administration at the Cabinet level. I’m proud that today’s Justice Department has made an historic commitment to this work. Through our Defending Childhood Initiative, we are directing resources for the express purpose of reducing childhood exposure to violence. And by playing a convening role in the National Youth Violence Prevention Forum, 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 the simple truth is that government can’t do it alone.
In addition to your continued leadership, partnership, and guidance, we need your help to apply the lessons we’ve learned – like the fact that enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration, while key components in our fight to ensure public safety, are merely pieces of the larger puzzle for addressing and eliminating youth violence. We need your help to develop and implement violence prevention and intervention strategies; to launch new after-school and summer job programs; and to build the adult support necessary to expand opportunities for achievement, contribution, and public service.
We also need your help to reach out to both parents and children; to provide teachers, civic leaders, and public health officials with up-to-date information about youth violence trends and indicators; and to train lawyers and law enforcement officers to respond more effectively when violence occurs.
Of course, as Robert Kennedy often pointed out, the world cannot be changed overnight. But, like him, we must have faith that the progress we seek is not beyond our reach, our capabilities, or our lifetimes.
I look forward to working with you all to advance the goals that we share and to honor the promise that – with his deeds and words – Robert Kennedy made to our nation’s children. This promise – of peace and security; of hope and opportunity; and, above all, of justice – is now ours to keep.
So, let us seize this precious moment. Let us fulfill this sacred obligation. And let us do everything within our power to – fully and finally – “make gentle the life of this world.”