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Conference on 'Children and Violence (1999)

I'm thrilled and more than a little intimidated to be here today. I'm thrilled because Deanne Tilton is a hero of mine and anything I can do to further her work puts me on the side of the angels. I'm intimidated because she has asked me here to speak instead of listen.

You folks are the experts in this area, so if I have anything to contribute at all it is first to express my gratitude for what you're doing and acknowledge that the importance of your work simply cannot be overstated. I would add that this is particularly so today in America when we are in the midst of so much confusion with regard to our children and our attitude about them. And I use the word confusion advisedly.

We have come a great distance from the day when children were considered property, chattel to be exploited, bought, sold, traded, used and abused at our whim. One would assume that all civilized people understand today that, as the song says, children are the future. They are a treasure. Children are the innocents, placed here in our trust to be guided, formed, encouraged, nurtured toward the full realization of their potential. We, as adults, are placed in a guardianship role and assume a huge responsibility for this precious, defenseless cargo.

One would assume that these are the givens. But I fear that a realistic assessment of the situation at large may tell us otherwise.

If it's axiomatic that a child raised in a violent environment will carry scars from that experience - and I believe it is - then it is inevitable that in some if not all cases the fury leaking from those scars will have enormous social cost. It will, that is, unless it is recognized and dealt with, unless the bearer of those scars is visible and valued. If so, it is possible that his or her rage can be calmed by a loving and patient touch, tempered by the healing hand of meaningful, perhaps long-term therapy, defused by consistent, insistent, deeply sensitive attention. And -- there are those who insist that it can be constrained by the iron grip of a rigid self-control, but where such might be learned in an abusive environment is a mystery to me.

The result, then, of violence in the home, whether it be in the form of physical, sexual or psychological abuse, is, as your professional experience likely attests, more violence.

Since I'm talking to experts in the field, let me assume that there is no significant disagreement among us about the importance, value and vulnerability of the children in our care - no argument that they deserve better than to be subject to the horrific kinds of abuses they so often suffer in their home - or in the places in which they spend their formative years. And I would wager that it's a source of great frustration to some of you that you don't often enough have the ability - or perhaps the right - to intervene, to invade those homes or environments and rescue those children from what we now know is the near certainty of serious physical and psychic harm.

And I'll assume those are only some of the deeply frustrating aspects of the work you do - the work for which I salute you. I'm not the expert and can't offer answers to the many dilemmas you face when parents and others who have power over children act, out of ignorance or, perhaps as the result of volcanic pressure from the bloody sores and scars they themselves bear given their own ugly history, in a destructive manner. But I can support you in your work and join you in the search for the proper moral, legal and ethical responses to these problems. That's part of the work of all of us in a civilized society.

And in that regard, I'd like to take a moment to expand the concept a bit, to conjecture about the responsibility of those of us who take seriously our custodial duties and ask that as an exercise you broaden your definition of what constitutes that problematic "home" or environment and consider some thoughts that might not otherwise have occurred. By expanding our idea of home to one of 'homeland' and looking at a few of the conditions that exist in ours, it may be that the 'givens' I described earlier do not hold. It may be that in this homeland of ours, children are not only not treasured, loved, adored and seen as the hope of the future, it may in fact be that children are viewed as an inconvenience, feared, perhaps even despised.

I was struck by the logic of Dr. James Gilligan, author of "Violence - Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes", and thought of applying his analysis to the plight of those children who are the focus of your attention. "Violence," Gilligan says, "is a function of shame, and shame is a function of the size of the gap between aspiration and achievement." In a child's terms, the gap between what she knows possible because of what she sees around her and what are the brutal realities imposed by her life. As Gilligan would have it, "In that archaic, pre scientific language called morality, this gap is called injustice."

He says "The first lesson that tragedy teaches is that all violence is an attempt to achieve justice, or what the violent person perceives as justice, so as to receive whatever retribution or compensation the violent person feels is 'due' him or 'owed' to him... Thus, the attempt to achieve and maintain justice, or to undo or prevent injustice, is the one and only universal cause of violence."

Put another way... "when people cannot ward off shame by nonviolent means, and it is overwhelming to them, there is always a strong pressure to do so by violent acts."

A while back I was at an event for a group of attorneys here who work in the inner city, helping people fight for their rights - their dignity - against slumlords who exploit them horribly. A quote from one of the young children from a family they had helped was used as their banner for the evening. "Mommy," the child had said, "does this mean we don't have to live in the rat house any more?" That's a clear, simple, easily understandable message. No one in America - at least of all a child - should have to live among rats. But in looking at that, I asked them to consider another child as well. Not this one who tugs at our heartstrings, but a child from the same circumstance who says, instead, "Mommy, I'm going to find the people who made us live like this and they'll be sorry."

What of that child?

For the purposes of my analogy, I'll ask that you consider our country a home and the children in it those to whom Dr. Gilligan makes reference. He says that "We have in this country what has been referred to as a 'revolution of rising expectations' ... But ... a rapid increase in human expectations followed by obvious failure to meet those expectations has been and continues to be a prescription for violence. Disappointment has manifested itself not only in riots... but may also be reflected in the levels of violent crime."

"It is not lack of knowledge or technical prowess that keeps us from launching and honest and serious fight against crime; the obstacles are much more... ideological and political. What seem on the surface to be technical arguments about what we can and cannot do about crime ... turn out, on closer inspection, to be moral or political arguments about what we should or should no do...

"We have the level of criminal violence we do because we have arranged our social and economic life in certain ways rather than others. The brutality and violence of American life are a signal...that there are profound social costs to maintaining those arrangements. But by the same token, altering them also has a price: and if we continue to tolerate the conditions that have made us the most violent of industrial societies, it is not because the problem is overwhelmingly mysterious or because we do not know what to do, but because we have decided that the benefits of changing those conditions aren't worth the costs."

Now, perhaps the analogy isn't perfect. But from where I stand it's more appropriate than many are willing to admit.

How else can we explain the number of poor children in our country - this the greatest, most powerful nation in the history of the world? How else do we explain the lack of medical care for millions of America's children than to admit, as Gilligan puts it, that "we have decided that the benefits of changing those conditions aren't worth the costs"?

I spoke earlier of confusion. I fear the confusion that exists today stems from the fact that while you and I care deeply about our children, too many of us don't care about children that are not ours. Too many don't see the inherent beauty in the kids who aren't cute, who aren't well behaved, who aren't the right size or shape or color.

My concern is that we live in a home, America, that is torn between loving its idealized children and fearing and despising its real children; a nation that is more intent on achieving material wealth and personal comfort than on recognizing that our greatest wealth, our children, is going wanting and being willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to meet those needs.

Justice Lewis Brandies said the state, whether we like it or not, is in loco parentis and serves as one of the most powerful moral teachers we have; and it teaches by example. He said "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example."

And what is that example? Can we be satisfied if even part of it is tolerance of rat-infested slums, poverty, lack of appropriate health care and apparent disdain for the welfare of our children?

We are one of the two countries in the world that has not signed The International Covenant on the Rights of the Child, a document delineating an almost universally agreed set of standards for the safekeeping of children. The other country that has not signed is Somalia, a nation without a government. A primary reason the U.S. has not signed that covenant is our unwillingness to agree that it is inappropriate to subject children under the age of 18 to capital punishment.

We are one of six countries in the world, along with Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan & Saudi Arabia, to insist upon the right to kill its children. In doing so we are also in violation of the 4th Geneva Convention, the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights, the last of which we signed, but with a reservation specifically allowing the continued execution of those under 18.

Charging children as adults is a politically popular stratagem for gaining attention today. When I say "politically popular" I mean that it is popular with politicians, as it is perceived as a quick and easy way to show that one is tough on crime, a position highly regarded and much touted by spin doctors and other political advisers whose concern is not the welfare of our children but the maintenance in power of their clients.

Fear-mongers make headlines when they manipulate the public's concerns, and headlines translate into votes. Hence, when youth crime statistics were twisted to hype the notion that a "predator generation" of kill-crazy teens was, like a pack of locusts, soon to descend upon us, so called responsible legislators got a lot of press by making what they themselves ballyhooed as the "tough call". Senator Orrin Hatch introduced an omnibus crime bill that would lower the minimum qualifying age for the federal death penalty from 18 to 16. Florida's Representative Bill McCollum proposed the Violent Youth Predator Act of 1996, calling for harsher punishment for juvenile violators. Then Governor Pete Wilson of California said that in order to protect ourselves we should be able to execute 14 year olds. California Democratic legislator and now Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante said, through crocodile tears, that given the threat to our way of life that they represented it might be necessary to kill those even younger. Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico proposed executing 13 year olds. And a Texas legislator, after the Arkansas schoolyard shootings, said we need to be able to kill the 11-year-olds. -- A transparent demonstration of the utter bankruptcy of a failed social policy.

The release of an FBI study showing that youth crime had not in fact risen but actually had fallen by 23% over the period in question seemed not to make a dent as a national poll indicated Americans believed that 43% of all crime was attributable to juveniles - while the actual amount was 12.8%.

You've probably read recent reports of brutal treatment of juvenile offenders in California and elsewhere in the nation by guards whose job it is to maintain them safely. Other than to note it I won't comment about the sexual abuse of women in custody by those in power over them or the arranged battles between and rapes of men - sometimes very young men - in our prison system.

And what are the lessons these custodians are teaching? What are the effects of the scars they are inflicting?

It's understood throughout the world that children lack the experience and maturity necessary to make appropriate choices, to fully understand the consequences of their actions and to comprehend the long-term effects of the decisions often placed before them and thus must be protected. It is for that reason that the laws of our own country bar children from buying or using cigarettes or alcohol, keep them from voting, refuse to consider them for jury duty and will not allow them to marry without parental consent. As the court has stated in Eddings V. Oklahoma, "adolescents, particularly in the early and middle teen years, are more vulnerable, more impulsive, and less self-disciplined than adults. " They went on, "Inexperience, less education, and less intelligence make the teenager less able to evaluate the consequences of his or her conduct while at the same time more apt to be motivated by mere emotion or peer pressure than adults."

I think America's schizophrenic relationship with its kids was typified by a story you're probably familiar with. Many Americans were scandalized by the news about a married teacher who had an affair with and was impregnated her by her 14-year-old student. Mary Kay LeTourneau was excoriated for taking advantage of a vulnerable child. She's in prison today because she, after having been found guilty of having a sexual relationship with the minor and placed on parole, violated that parole by again meeting with her child-lover. Ms. LeTourneau, an adult, "knew better" than to engage in such behavior with an immature child. The boy, whose name has not been released for his own protection, said he was in love with Ms. LeTourneau, but of course we know that a child of that age really hasn't the life experience to fully comprehend his own emotional responses to such an overwhelming situation. So we protect him.

We protect him. But if that boy had pursued LeTourneau, and they had fought, and he had killed her, there would have immediately been ambitious, tough-on-crime politicians and so-called victim's rights advocates in front of the cameras, insisting on his death.

So what is the answer? Well, this is a home we can invade. It is ours. We can recognize that there is a reason for violent behavior, just as there is a reason for all human behavior, and look beyond self-defeating solutions. We can care enough about our children to inconvenience ourselves. We can accept the responsibilities of custodianship and practice them joyfully. We can apply the balm of love to the wounds of indifference before they become the scars of fury.

Perhaps we can learn from a neighbor, say, another "home" like Japan, which was faced a year or so ago with the phenomenon of one child brutally murdering another.

The shock to that society brought on by this horrifically brutal act is the kind that brings pain to the hearts of parents everywhere. What is more inexplicable than the commission of a grotesque act, reportedly including torture and decapitation, by an apparently normal fourteen-year-old human being of any race?

But as a result of this awful murder of an eleven-year-old child, whose severed head was placed outside a school, Japanese parents, teachers, specialists and government officials questioned themselves about the pressures they had placed on their children by a cultural emphasis on performance. "We need to recognize that the stress level of our youngsters is reaching a dangerous level," said Nobuto Hosaka, a Member of Parliament.

Whatever the outcome of the soul-searching that spontaneously erupted in the wake of that killing, the questions being asked carry with them an enormously important lesson for us, if we're willing to listen. Theirs is the reaction of a healthy community, a healthy household: Something must be wrong when one of innocents, one of our not-yet-fully formed citizens, one of those in whom we invest our ideals and from whom we expect the realization of the promise of our nation, cracks under the pressure of our society and does dishonor to another, to himself, and to us in the bargain.

Note that nowhere in this process do we see a bloated politician calling for the death of this child and other miscreant 14-year olds. Note that vote-seekers did not leap forward to denounce this confused boy as the harbinger of a "predatory" crop of twisted, murderous youth.

The example the Japanese household offers here is one of a society which trusts, loves, honors and believes in the potential of its children to the degree that it is willing to critically examine its own behavior, its own choices, when presented with evidence that something is terribly amiss. Not only a demonstration of great inner strength, this is an exemplary act of extraordinary generosity by which their children will profit. And it is one we Americans, who tolerate the impoverishment of our children, then quail in the face of their sometimes violent reactions to that abuse, who now champion the imprisonment of youthful offenders with adults, who have executed more children in out death chambers than any other nation in the world, should give serious consideration.

For you who value our children and insist upon their visibility, who recognize the responsibility we bear to protect this precious, defenseless cargo, I offer my thanks. And a thought:

Susan Griffin, in her book "A Chorus of Stones", writes of coming to grips with her history of childhood abuse and the discoveries that she made along the way.

"It is said that the close study of stone will reveal traces from fires suffered thousands of years ago... I am beginning to believe that we know everything, that all history, including the history of each family, is part of us, such that, when we hear any secret revealed, a secret about a grandfather, or an uncle, or a secret about the battle of Dresden in 1945, our lives are made suddenly clearer to us, as the unnatural heaviness of unspoken truth is dispersed. For perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung."

For your willingness to speak the unspoken truths, for your willingness to sing those remarkable, wounded histories, I thank you.


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