Juvenile Victim program threatened by budget cut

March 11, 1993|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,Staff writer

When two of his classmates were charged with beating her 15-year-old son almost unconscious, Faith Taylor wondered whether she should hire a lawyer and what she should do about the phone calls she was getting from the mother of one of the other boys.

Staff members at the county Police Department's Juvenile Victim Witness Program answered those and dozens of other questions for her.

"I would have been totally lost without them," said Mrs. Taylor of Davidsonville. "I would have gone in there blind with nothing to hold on to."

But the program, which shepherded 2,155 victims and witnesses through the juvenile justice system last year, could be threatened by County Executive Robert R. Neall's government reorganization plan. Two of the three staff members are contractual employees, who could lose their jobs under Mr. Neall's plan.

Debra Tall, program coordinator, said it is unclear how the reorganization would affect her office.

"We have not been told definitely what's going to happen," she said.

Under Mr. Neall's plan, some contractual jobs will be eliminated and others could be converted to county merit positions. Some workers could be kept on, but without benefits, such as paid holidays.

"They say they don't want to get rid of the program," Ms. Tall said, adding that some officials have suggested using police officers on light duty to staff the office when needed because of pregnancies or injuries.

But light duty officers would come and go from the program frequently, she complained. Hiring staff members under the county's merit system would allow the program to continue to run smoothly by people trained to do the job.

"I really want these positions converted to merit postions," Ms. Tall said.

The program began with a federal grant in 1984 to help people such as Mrs. Taylor and her son, John, negotiate the juvenile justice system. The county began picking up the tab a year later.

By focusing on the victims of juvenile crime, the program picks up where the state's attorney's victim witness program, which deals only with the aftermath of crimes with an adult suspect, leaves off.

"There is a big difference between the juvenile justice system and adult justice system," Ms. Tall explained. "Our goal is to help them through the process. The main thing is that someone is listening to them and they are not getting the run around."

In Maryland, suspects under the age of 14 charged with first-degree murder, first-degree rape, first-degree sex offense or dynamite and bombing violations, are tried as juvenile, as are those under 16 charged with crimes such as armed robbery or possession of a handgun.

The most common crime among juveniles is theft, then assault, Ms. Tall said.

At the beginning of the juvenile process, a case worker holds a hearing to decide whether he has enough evidence to send the case to juvenile court.

"I thought it would be a court room hearing with a judge and all that," Mrs. Taylor said. "But it's not. At first I thought I would not be able to say anything."

A minor case often can be resolved at the hearing level. If not, it's given to the state's attorney's office to try in juvenile court.

Besides helping a victim through the process, the staff also provides a referral service to help victims with problems the program can't solve.

"They were there to listen to me," Mrs. Taylor said.

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