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

National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children Conference

Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Dallas, TX

       Good morning. Thank you, Chuck [Noerenberg]. It's great to get a chance to address so many professionals who are working to protect the youngest victims of our nation's drug epidemic - drug endangered children. And endangered really is the key word in these young lives.

       Near Nashville, Tennessee, hazmat crews were sent to dismantle a methamphetamine lab. Dressed in hazmat suits and wearing oxygen tanks, they found a 1 ½-year-old girl sitting no more than five feet from a backpack - which was, in fact, a portable meth lab.

       In Destin, Florida, a man attempted to dispose of drugs during an interview with the State Department of Children and Families. The ensuing search yielded dozens of needles and other paraphernalia easily accessible to children. Three children - ages 2, 4, and 6 - were removed from the home.

        And, in Austin, Texas, a suspect's mother called authorities when she discovered that her son was making meth in a shed on her property - a shed surrounded by her granddaughter's toys. Inside the building, police officers found an array of toxic liquids in bottles, mason jars, and vases.

        Those are just a few recent examples of the estimated 9.2 million children who live in homes where a parent or other adult uses illicit drugs. These children are the most innocent of victims - both young and naïve, trusting and reliant, and wholly powerless.

       They are infants who aren't changed and fed; toddlers who are left to fend for themselves; adolescents who are forced to care for their siblings and even their parents; and teens who, all too often, turn to easily accessible drugs to fill the void their parents have left.

       You know these children. You have seen the pain of neglect, the trauma of abuse, and the environments where no one - certainly not a child - should live. But I also know that you see hope for their futures - because you are here.

        That hope is found, I think, not only in your presence but in your clear commitment to collaboration. The National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children fosters community partnerships to rescue, defend, shelter, and support drug endangered children. These actions - rescuing, defending, sheltering, and supporting - are only possible through collaborations.

       Collaboration is the action that started, and continues to sustain, this movement. So I'd like to begin today by thanking you all for dedication to working together - on the national, state, local, and tribal levels. Your teamwork is a lifeline for endangered children.

       In that same spirit of collaboration, the Justice Department has introduced several efforts to protect and defend children - including those who are neglected or abused because of their caregivers' addictions.

       Attorney General Eric Holder launched his Defending Childhood initiative in September. This initiative is aimed at addressing a national crisis - the exposure of America's children to violence as victims and as witnesses.

       Violence in this instance is broadly defined and includes all types of child maltreatment. Physical and emotional abuse and neglect are often experienced by drug endangered children. These are real forms of violence that can be devastating for a child. According to the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence, sponsored by our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, one in 10 children suffered some form of child maltreatment in the year surveyed. Nearly one in five had experienced maltreatment in their lifetimes.

       Defending Childhood seeks to prevent exposure to violence when we can, mitigate its impact when we can't, and spread awareness about the issue. It will leverage federal resources, funding, and partnerships throughout DOJ and the government. Ultimately, the initiative aims to help stop the cycle of violence by better defending every child's right to a childhood free from violence.

       As part of our efforts to protect and defend children everywhere, the Justice Department is also responding directly to the needs of drug endangered children. The Drug Endangered Children Interagency Task Force was formed in May of this year.

       The Task Force is part of the 2010 National Drug Control Strategy, and DOJ was asked to lead the team - which includes more than eight federal agencies and 80 participants. A major focus of our efforts - much like those on the state and local levels - is collaboration. That's why one of the first actions of the Task Force's subcommittees was to reach out to national advocacy groups, community leaders, tribal representatives, and law enforcement officials who specialize in drug endangered children issues. Likewise, the Deputy Attorney General hosted a call within two months of forming the Task Force, inviting both these experts, as well as public office holders, educators, and other new partners, to participate in this effort.

       In fact, just last week, we held a second stakeholder call - and invited more than 2,000 participants - to solicit feedback and encourage membership in our stakeholder group. If you have not already partnered with us, we encourage you to send your information to [email protected], so that you can learn more about our efforts and get involved.

       We know that we cannot have a successful initiative without your input and participation. We want to learn from your experiences and help coordinate efforts across the country. Together, we can create a more cohesive strategy to serve these young victims.

       As you know, the drug endangered children movement was directly related to the meth crisis - to finding children like the ones I mentioned earlier living, eating, and playing in meth labs, exposed to dangerous chemicals, potential explosives, and countless hazards. According to the El Paso Intelligence Center's National Clandestine Laboratory Seizure system, approximately 1,025 children were injured or affected by meth labs in 2008. But, as you well know, the problem of drug endangered children is not limited to meth labs.

       Children live in homes where marijuana is grown, where cocaine and crack are used, and where prescription drugs are abused. These substances expose children to a variety of risks - from toxic smoke to accidental ingestion and from neglect to physical, mental, and even sexual abuse.

       Therefore, the Federal Task Force is addressing not just children exposed to meth but also children who are in danger from any and all illicit drug use. One of the Task Force's first goals is to create a comprehensive vehicle to track and share ongoing efforts to protect drug endangered children. We need to know what's happening - and what's working - in Oregon, in Iowa, here in Texas, and throughout the country to begin to create a national strategy to keep these children safe. This effort will help us identify best practices - as well as gaps in services that must be filled.

       As a first step, the Task Force has already completed an inventory of federal DEC programs and is working on a list of promising practices. Already, we have evidence that multidisciplinary, multijurisdictional teams - teams like the ones many of you serve on - are most effective in assisting drug endangered children. We've also identified existing resources and creative approaches that have immense potential.

       Finding, sharing, and promoting innovation is an important federal role. We have the ability to harness resources from police departments, social service agencies, victim service providers, child care and education providers, health professionals, and courts throughout the country, and to make these resources easily accessible for everyone.

       Ultimately, the information we collect will form the basis for a national Web site with information, resources, guidance, and training for first responders and multi-disciplinary teams. We anticipate launching the site in 2011. We also plan to include this information in a CD and accompanying brochure to be distributed to the field and used in communities throughout the country.

        The Task Force has also already reviewed the full scope of legislative definitions of drug endangered children, as well as criminal statutes, and hopes to make recommendations on model laws that have been effective in different states. This will help policymakers create a solid legislative foundation to support all of you on the frontlines.

        One of the most vital resources the federal government can provide is training. The funds we dedicate to training and technical assistance throughout the criminal justice fields is money well spent. By investing in the education and advancement of frontline investigators, we see huge returns in the form of more citizens receiving quality services and more communities proactively addressing problems. Therefore, the Task Force is focusing on DEC training for law enforcement and other stakeholders at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels. We are actively seeking opportunities to expand training offerings.

        Our training efforts are, of course, all dependent on that key element of this movement: collaboration. We are working with state, local, tribal and non-profit partners - including many of you here at this conference - to determine what types of trainings are needed and how they can be integrated into existing curriculums.

        In this effort, we are lucky to have the National Alliance as one of our partners. With support from our Bureau of Justice Assistance, or BJA, the Alliance is undertaking several major training initiatives that you will no doubt hear more about.

       First, they are pilot testing the Core Drug Endangered Children Training Program. This training will provide a basic understanding of DEC concepts and explain the vital roles national and state alliances play in instituting consistent responses. It is expected to be finalized in February.

        Second, in Fiscal Year 2010, the National Alliance received a BJA grant to develop and deliver training for prosecutors, child welfare workers, and other appropriate stakeholders that will help them respond to cases involving drug endangered children. The project will kick off in the next several months.

        The National Alliance and BJA also have many other ongoing partnerships to provide resources, best practices, training, and technical assistance for state DEC alliances and tribal nations.

        Through our existing partnerships, our newly formed Task Force, and our ongoing outreach to professionals like all of you, the Justice Department is dedicated to continuing to support collaboration and foster innovation.

       I started today with some examples of children who are still reeling from the results of illicit drug use. Because I know that we all share a sincere optimism about their futures, I'd like to end on a more positive note.

       I've used the example of a young boy featured in Nick Reding's bestselling book, Methland, before, but I think he really exemplifies the resilience and promise of even the most neglected and abused children.

       Buck, a two-year-old boy at the time, is famous for having the "highest cell-follicle traces of methamphetamine ever recorded in [Iowa] state history" in his hair, Reding reported. Both his parents were addicts. His playground was a meth lab; his food was prepared in the same microwave his parents used to make meth. His toys, his clothes, and his life were contaminated.

       But Buck is not just a record holder; he is a survivor. His story has a promising, if not yet happy, ending. Buck's father, Major, following an arrest, gets clean and moves Buck in with his parents, who are raising the child at the end of the book. They are caring and nurturing, and Buck is flourishing. Unfortunately, we don't yet know how much his childhood exposure will ultimately harm him.

       We do know, however, that we can best help children like Buck by working with professionals like you, by identifying what works and getting that information to the field, and by listening to what you need and developing coordinated responses.

       The success of the Justice Department's Drug Endangered Children Interagency Task Force is wholly dependent on collaboration - at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels. As this effort matures and expands, we look forward to working with - and for - all of you.

        For drug endangered children whose lives are shattered, whose playgrounds are contaminated, and whose caretakers are besieged by addition, our partnerships are their best hope.

       Thank you.


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