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Remarks of Mary Lou Leary, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

Child Welfare League of America
2010 National Conference
January 26, 2010
Washington, DC

       Thank you, Olivia. I appreciate the chance to join my colleague from the Department of Health and Human Services to talk about federal efforts in child protection and welfare. I'd also like to applaud the Child Welfare League of America for understanding the link between child welfare and public safety, and for helping to raise awareness of the connection.

       Let me begin by giving you some numbers. In October, our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention released findings from the National Survey on Children Exposed to Violence, which was supported by the CDC. The survey found that more than 60 percent of children were exposed to violence in the past year, either directly or indirectly. One in 10 had suffered some form of child maltreatment - either abuse or neglect. One in 16 was sexually victimized. And almost 40 percent experienced 2 or more victimizations in the previous year. These are sobering numbers, and very concerning to us at OJP.

       The issue of children exposed to violence has been a big concern of Eric Holder's, going back to his days as Deputy Attorney General under Janet Reno. He spoke at length about this issue at the American Academy of Pediatrics shortly after the survey came out. And what's so striking about these statistics - and the Attorney General has made this point - is that children are living with violence at rates that adults would never tolerate.

       This is a public health problem, and we need to treat it as such - by calling attention to it, by raising awareness of the societal costs. It means treating it like a disease, attacking it at its source - not simply looking at the symptoms, but looking at the family and the environment in which the child lives.

       One of the ways to do that is to support community-based efforts that provide comprehensive and accessible services to children at risk of exposure, which we're doing at OJP through our Safe Start Initiative. Safe Start supports evidence-based practices in 15 communities across the country. We also support the Safe Start Center, which has a wealth of guidebooks for professionals and families and other resources. You can find those at SafeStartCenter.org.

       We also need to understand what other programs are working to serve these children. There are good, evidence-based approaches like the "medical home" model used in the Bronx and other places. The field needs more information about these efforts.

       One of the things we're trying to do at OJP is to expand our base of knowledge about what works in this and other areas. We're undertaking an agency-wide effort to get information about those programs out to the field. Part of this will be a Crime Solutions Resource Center and a diagnostic center - or "help desk" - to help jurisdictions apply evidence-based practices.

       Besides the obvious - and alarming - concern about child protection, the Department of Justice is concerned about the implications for delinquency and community safety. There's a substantial and growing body of research that confirms the link between exposure to violence and later criminality. We know that children who are abused and neglected are more likely to end up in juvenile facilities or in adult prisons later in life. And this can be a terrible cycle.

       I don't know how many of you are familiar with the recent report from our Bureau of Justice Statistics that found that 12 percent of adjudicated juveniles residing in state-run or large local and private facilities have been sexually victimized while in custody. That's an appalling number, and it's likely to have terrible consequences when those juveniles leave those facilities. This is both a humanitarian issue and a public safety issue.

       We're looking at this issue from a reentry perspective. Last year, we provided $28 million under the Second Chance Act for juvenile and adult reentry programs to support services like substance abuse and mental health treatment. And this year, we have $100 million for Second Chance programs.

       These are just a few of the areas we're involved in, and I'd welcome your thoughts - later during the discussion - on how OJP could work more closely with the child welfare systems to address these issues.

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