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Jeffrey L. Sedgwick, Acting Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

National Court Appointed Special Advocates 27th Annual Conference
Washington, DC
June 8, 2008

Thank you, Michael [Michael Piraino, CEO of National CASA]. It’s a pleasure to be here among such distinguished company. When you deal with the safety of children, as we do every day at the Office of Justice Programs, you’re always encouraged to hear that there are people of influence such as First Lady Holten and Mrs. Powell who care so deeply about the issues that affect young people. I want to thank them both for their advocacy on behalf of abused and neglected children.

I’d also like to take a moment to thank the hundreds of CASA volunteers who are here today and the thousands of volunteers across the country who give of their time to help children in need. The service that you provide is invaluable – in many cases, life-saving – and we at OJP are grateful for everything you do.

I’m pleased that we can have a part in your work. We’ve developed a terrific partnership with CASA programs and National CASA over the years. Since 1985, our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, working with National CASA, has awarded more than $75 million to state and local CASA programs. And the best part about it is that almost all of the money administered by National CASA – 93 percent of it, to be exact – goes directly to supporting CASA and guardian ad litem activities. It’s a real load off my mind, particularly in these tough budgetary times, to know that our partners are such conscientious stewards of federal funds.

But our partnership hasn’t just been about getting money out the door. It’s been about results. It makes me proud – and it should make you all proud – that more than two million children across the country have received advocacy from CASA programs. In 2007 alone, some 59,000 volunteers were assigned to 243,000 children. That’s almost a quarter-million children receiving the attention they need to get out of abusive or neglectful situations. And we can be confident that they are getting the best services possible.

Getting kids into safe, permanent homes is the goal of CASA programs, but CASAs’ benefits don’t end there. We know from our research that childhood abuse and neglect have extraordinary implications for future offending. Research commissioned by our National Institute of Justice shows that children who are abused and neglected are 11 times more likely to be arrested for a violent crime as a juvenile. We can’t underestimate the importance of interrupting this cycle of violence, which is precisely what CASAs do when they remove a child from a bad situation.

The Department of Justice has spent a great deal of time and resources over the last several years dealing with the problem of youth violence. Late in 2006, I joined several of my Justice Department colleagues on visits to cities around the country to find out what was contributing to rising crime rates in some areas. What we heard from local officials disturbed us. As you might expect, we heard that each city had unique issues. At the same time, we identified several underlying themes. For example, we found that:

  • Juvenile violence is becoming more serious, with a younger population of offenders committing more violent acts.

  • Gang members, some of them as young as 12 and 13, are carrying firearms and using them impulsively and recklessly.

  • And large numbers of released felons are entering communities and coming into contact with young people, creating a kind of perverse mentoring system.

  • You can see a pattern, namely that youth crime has become a serious problem in many communities.

Now, we don’t know for a fact that all of these juvenile offenders were abused or neglected. But what we do know is that their actions as juveniles are having a profound, negative impact on the safety of their communities. Given the strong link between child abuse and youth violence, the job of intervening in the life of an abused or neglected child becomes more than an isolated humanitarian act – it is an urgent public safety matter.

Stepping in on behalf of abused and neglected children, no matter where they are, is critical, but the need is more pressing in certain areas. Children in tribal communities are among those with the greatest need. Native American children are among the most victimized children in the United States, and it follows that they are over-represented in the child welfare system.

Compounding the comparatively high rates of abuse and neglect in Indian country are limited resources and a complex web of jurisdictional issues that can make it a serious challenge to secure a child’s safety. Tribes are hamstrung by a combination of factors, including high rates of poverty and unemployment, insufficient human services, and remote geography. They are vulnerable to substance abuse and drug-related crimes, which ultimately, if not immediately, impact children and youth. The influx of methamphetamine into some tribal communities is a perfect example. We heard testimony from the National Congress of American Indians that of the thousands of cases handled by California Indian Legal Services, almost every case in which a child has been taken from the home involves at least one parent who uses meth.

Making matters more difficult is the fact that law enforcement authority in Indian country is shared among tribal, state, and federal agencies, so child protection, like other public safety functions, has always been unusually dependent on cooperation and collaboration. If you know anything about the history of Indian child welfare, you know that collaboration didn’t always work the way it was supposed to. In many cases, children were taken not only out of their homes, but out of their communities, away from grandparents and relatives and friends – the only people they had ever known. And tribes were given little if any say into what happened to those children. It wasn’t until just 30 years ago, with the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, that Congress finally sought to fix the system.

Changing the law has helped, but it takes people dedicated to protecting children to make it work. One of the elements of our partnership with National CASA is a project to improve the handling of child abuse and neglect in tribal communities. The Tribal Court CASA Project, a partnership between National CASA and our Office for Victims of Crime, is supporting the development and operation of CASA programs in tribal court systems.

There are 15 tribal CASA programs in varying stages of development and operation. Some are brand new and just bringing on volunteers, like the Yurok Tribe in California, while others are established and active, like the Oglala Lakota program in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. The purpose of the Tribal Court CASA Project is to provide training and technical assistance in an effort to increase the number of Native children receiving advocacy. So far, we’re making great progress. In 2007, some 70 staff and volunteers served 100 Native American children.

In order to serve children in tribal communities, it’s essential to understand the traditions in which they are raised. A major reason for passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act was the sad history of removing children wholesale from their cultures, failing to appreciate and respect the rich history of community child-rearing in Indian country. The same lesson should be applied to dealing with children and families in other cultures.

I’m reminded of a story I heard recently from a victim advocate who said that when she started her career, she made lots of faulty assumptions about what victims need. She had gone into the victim services field with all kinds of good intentions, but those good intentions were often marred by a lack of sensitivity. She said she made one mistake after another, leaving her clients frustrated and poorly served. Finally, one day she was approached by a victim who, after dressing her down about her presumptuousness, said to her, “You know, you’re not a bad person, you’re just ignorant.” To which this advocate earnestly replied, “Great, I can change ignorant.”

Every CASA volunteer comes into this line of work with the best of intentions and the noblest of motives. Sometimes, though, it helps to have our horizons broadened and our awareness heightened. To that end, National CASA developed a culturally sensitive training curriculum for volunteers, which it recently revised. I understand it has received very favorable reviews from those who have taken the training. I know National CASA also has worked with Casey Family Programs to begin rolling out a new training in cultural identity called Knowing Who You Are. That training is intended to help child welfare professionals integrate racial and ethnic identity into child welfare practice. These resources will be of tremendous value to CASA volunteers as they work to protect children in our increasingly diverse society.

National CASA has done a great job of enhancing the training available to state and local programs. In addition to its usual array of onsite training and technical assistance, it offers monthly Webinars and weekly podcasts so that volunteers can benefit from more frequent access to instruction and skill-building exercises.

They’re also working hard to make sure that CASA programs measure up to the high standards we expect of all child-serving professionals and volunteers. Speaking of which, I want to congratulate all the state and local programs for having completed the first cycle of your comprehensive quality assurance system. I understand it’s a thorough process designed to demonstrate compliance with program and volunteer management standards.

The folks at National CASA are working hard to make sure that CASA volunteers and guardians ad litem have all the tools they need to do their jobs effectively. I’m proud that my agency is playing a role in that effort.

We consider our partnership with CASA programs one of the central elements of our work to protect children. It goes right alongside our work with children’s advocacy centers. It stands with our support of the AMBER Alert network and other efforts to help missing and abducted children. And it shares prominence with our work under Project Safe Childhood to prevent and respond to the online exploitation of children.

We have a dedicated staff of our own at OJP, and one thing they understand well is that our system for protecting children wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the men and women who make the selfless commitment to represent their interests in court. Too many children have been silenced by abuse and neglect. You have given them a voice, and for that, we are all grateful.

Thank you.

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