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

Makers of Memories Foundation Dinner

Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Washington, DC

     Thank you very much, Elliott [Dee]. I'm delighted to be here. I think I know most everyone at the table. It's good to see my friends and former associates from the victims field. One of the things I appreciate about my job at OJP is that I never really had to leave victim services. These issues have always been - and always will be - very close to my heart, and I feel fortunate that I can continue my work on behalf of victims in my current post.

     I want to applaud Elliott, Valerie, and the Board and staff of Makers of Memories. The work that this Foundation does is just so critical. We all know that being exposed to domestic violence can have such a destructive impact on kids. At the same time, we know that children are capable - with support - of recovering from the trauma - and not just recovering, but thriving. This organization is dedicated to creating positive, transformative change for children in adverse circumstances, and that's a remarkable - and laudable - thing.

     I'm proud that the Department of Justice shares this commitment. I think most of you are aware that one of the Attorney General's top priorities is combating children's exposure to violence, in all its forms. This is a long-standing commitment of his, going as far back at least as his days as U.S. Attorney. I worked for him as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and I know how deeply he was affected by cases involving children, especially kids in domestic violence situations.

     As Deputy Attorney General in the late 90s, he helped launch the Safe Start Initiative, which our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention administers. Safe Start was - and is - the Department's first full-fledged effort to prevent and reduce the impact of children's exposure to violence. Several other efforts have grown out of that, including the "Greenbook" Initiative that I know some of you are familiar with. That was really a major effort to illuminate the problems that children face in domestic violence situations. Our partners at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges published guidelines on serving children and families, and OJP subsequently funded several demonstration sites to implement those guidelines.

     When Eric Holder returned to the Department as Attorney General in 2009, he brought the issue back to center stage, and last year, he launched his Defending Childhood Initiative. A big part of that initiative involves raising public awareness about the problem of children's exposure to violence. We produced a 30-second PSA that we began airing three weeks ago on the Investigation Discovery network. It features the Attorney General talking about the issue, and I'd like to take just a moment to show that, if I could.

*   *   *

     We also distributed the PSA through the Justice Department's YouTube channel, and it's available for viewing on the Department's Web site, as well.

     I wanted to show the video because I think it's important that all of you who work on this issue know that this is a major initiative at the Department of Justice. This is being driven by the Attorney General himself - it's something that he, personally, cares deeply about. He's spoken on this topic in a number of places, starting with the American Academy of Pediatrics back in 2009 on up to the Harvard School of Public Health just a few weeks ago. We're trying to reach a wide range of audiences from diverse disciplines, and he's been the number one spokesperson on this issue.

     The problem of children's exposure to violence is one that all of us at DOJ and OJP are concerned about - as we should be. The statistics that we have are alarming. By now, I'm sure most of you are familiar with the findings from the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence, which OJJDP funded with support from the CDC. I think some of the findings bear repeating:

     To begin with, more than 60 percent of kids have been exposed to some type of crime, abuse, or violence.

     Almost half of those exposed to violence were physically assaulted in the previous year, 1 in 10 suffered abuse or neglect, and 1 in 16 was victimized sexually.

     Almost 40 percent of kids were victimized more than once during the past year.

     And the Survey revealed that a child's exposure to violence is likely to increase over time - both in number and in type of victimization.

     One of the things the Survey did was confirm that children are disproportionately affected by violence. The Attorney General put it best when he said that children are "living with violence at rates that we, as adults, would never tolerate."

     But let's break down some of these findings. There are, sadly, many ways a child can be exposed to violence. He can see it or experience it on the streets or at school; he can be bullied or assaulted or watch others be victimized; he can hear about a loved one being murdered or raped; he can experience victimization through the Internet.

     One of the most traumatic forms of exposure is being in a home where violence occurs. The National Survey found that children are exposed to high rates of violence in the home. One in nine children was exposed to some form of family violence in the past year. Looking at the long term, more than a quarter of all kids surveyed were exposed to at least one form of family violence in their lifetimes. And when you take the oldest group of kids - those ages 14 to 17 - more than 40 percent reported exposure to family violence at some point during their lifetimes.

     The idea that so many children find themselves in these situations is hard to accept - and we shouldn't accept it. And beyond the sheer numbers, when you consider what research tells us about the impact of exposure to violence on kids, it's even more disturbing. Exposure to family violence is associated with a host of mental health symptoms, not only in childhood but continuing into later life - from post-traumatic stress to depression and anxiety. We also know that exposure is tied to aggressive behaviors, including later offending. The research definitely supports the notion of a cycle of violence.

     And there are other consequences, as well - less tangible, perhaps, but equally significant. Domestic violence can influence parenting styles, limit a mother's or father's emotional availability, and contribute to parental use and abuse of drugs. These, too, can create serious and long-term problems for kids.

     But the problems are not insurmountable. Far from it. We know there are quality interventions that foster healthy child development, counter the negative effects of violence, and help to restore families. One thing I think is important for us to remember is the truism about children's resiliency. Kids are capable of bouncing back from these traumatic experiences. But they need our help.

     We've seen promising approaches that focus on enhancing resiliency and building healthy families. There are programs that bring pediatricians together with mental health professionals and attorneys to deliver holistic services that protect the health and interests of children. There are "medical home" models like the one funded under Safe Start at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx. And there are tools now available to screen children for their risk of exposure to domestic violence. These are all developments that have taken place over the last decade or so thanks to a growing awareness of the problem and a new willingness to confront it.

     I'm pleased that the Department of Justice has played an important part in raising awareness and in helping to advance the field. Defending Childhood is the culmination and continuation of years of work that we - in partnership with the field - have put into improving our response to children exposed to violence. In a nutshell, Defending Childhood focuses on developing the knowledge we've gained over the years into workable strategies for preventing and reducing exposure to violence. We've funded eight demonstration sites across the country to develop comprehensive, community-based plans to address children's exposure to violence.

     One of the sites is Shelby County, Tennessee. Based on law enforcement data, there were some 25,000 incidents of domestic violence in Shelby County in 2010. A survey of households indicated that almost half of those incidents occurred in the presence of children. One of the problems that officials described is the failure to identify and refer children who are exposed to domestic violence. They pointed out that professionals who come into contact with these children really aren't trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma. Project staff there are working to remedy this by creating what they call a Family Safety Center, which will be a one-stop shop for law enforcement, legal, and social services for domestic violence victims. The idea is to create a coordinated continuum of effective services for children in domestic violence situations.

     Part of this will be training for teachers, day care workers, and others in child care to build social and emotional resiliency and develop protective factors in children. They're also working to strengthen parenting skills for those who come into contact with the system, and they're engaging in outreach with families in apartment complexes with high rates of domestic violence and other crimes.

     Boston is another Defending Childhood site working to address domestic violence. Interestingly, if not altogether surprisingly, service providers there found that almost all the kids they see have been exposed to multiple forms of violence. In particular, they say there's significant overlap between domestic violence and community violence.

     As in Shelby County, one of the challenges is identifying children who have been exposed to violence. Standardized screening and assessment are rarely used, and there's no mechanism for gathering information from children about their exposure. Service professionals overwhelmingly expressed a need for training, not only on how to identify exposure, but on how to provide appropriate support and referrals.

     The Attorney General has called attention to the need for training. Part of the Boston plan is to institute training collaboratives that bring together professionals from across disciplines. It also envisions evidence-based nurturing parent programs through health centers, early care centers, churches, and other places where parents are already connected.

     The demonstration sites are one part of Defending Childhood, but only a part. One of the points about children's exposure to violence that the Attorney General has emphasized is that it really is a public health problem that deserves a public health response. This means treating it as the disease it is - calling attention to the problem and attacking it at its source, in the environment where it incubates, and also controlling transmission of the disease. We need solid research to do this, and that's a big part of Defending Childhood. It's also something that OJP's Assistant Attorney General, Laurie Robinson, has made a top priority.

     Laurie launched her Evidence Integration Initiative, or E2I, to develop our body of research and to get it out to practitioners in ways they can use. One of the first issues we've explored through E2I is children's exposure to violence. We've canvassed the literature to find out what we know about what works in this area, and three things jump out:

     First, prevention and intervention efforts are most effective when they engage BOTH parents and children. We need dual safety approaches that look at the parent and child as a unit.

     Second, as we saw in Boston, services need to accommodate children who are victimized in multiple ways in multiple places. Some kids literally have no safe place, and we need to pay special attention to these victims when assessing risk.

     And third, although our knowledge base is growing and we're seeing more programs address this issue, the use of evidence-based practices is still very limited. We need to expand the application of research to practice and promote evidence-based approaches in a greater number of communities.

     These are some of the lessons we've learned from research. We hope to learn more and to apply what we learn in the practitioner field. This is an intensive -and fairly painstaking - process, but it's an important one, considering how high the stakes are.

     There aren't any easy solutions or quick fixes, but we have a pretty clear idea of where we need to go. The good news is that we have a better understanding of the problem of children's exposure to violence than we've ever had, and we have the benefit of some successful experiments in serving child victims and witnesses. We need to build on this momentum by looking closely at those approaches that work and by mapping our strategies with what the research tells us.

     I know you're all committed to reducing the impact of violence on our children, and I applaud your work. The Department of Justice is your partner in this effort, and we will continue to work with you to make this country safer for our kids.

     Thank you.

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