Montgomery County social workers, prosecutors, school officials and police should better coordinate the help they provide to young people who are victims or witnesses of crime, particularly to ensure that more get counseling, according to a recent report to the County Council.
County employees should learn more about programs outside their agencies that are available to young people, and the school system and police department should reach a clearer agreement on who should investigate in certain cases, according to recommendations in the report, by the council's Office of Legislative Oversight.
An estimated 11,800 young people in Montgomery ages 12 to 17 are victims of crimes each year, the report said. Of those, an estimated 4,200 are victims of violent crimes. The rest fall prey to property crimes.
Most of the crimes aren't reported because the young victims are embarrassed or worry about being blamed, or they fear retaliation, said the report, citing national research. The crimes that were reported in Montgomery in a recent three-year period included nine murders of juveniles, more than 200 reports of rapes and almost 470 reports of serious assaults, according to police department statistics cited.
Young crime victims are at greater risk of mental and physical health problems, drug and alcohol use, trouble in school and committing crimes as a juvenile or adult, according to research mentioned in the report. Children who witness crimes, particularly domestic violence -- a group that often gets less attention -- often suffer the same effects, the report said.
"A lot of young people are being abused or victimized," said council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), who chairs the council's public safety committee. "We need to make sure we're doing everything possible to prevent this and to help children so when they are victimized, we can get services to help them recover and reduce the chance that they will become offenders."
Andrews said the council requested the study two years ago after the Office of Legislative Oversight did a similar review of services for adult crime victims and witnesses. The council wanted to know the extent of problems for juveniles, Andrews said.
Agencies in Montgomery that serve young people use many techniques and offer some programs found to be effective, the report said. Those include child-friendly interview techniques used by police detectives and social workers, and special programs for young victims of sexual abuse.
But the report found that the help offered to children often depended on factors such as the type of crime, the age of the victim, where the incident occurred and whether the alleged suspect was an adult or juvenile.
A key problem, the report found, was that the help juvenile victims received often was based on whether they reported the incident to the police, to a school official or to a social worker. That often determines what kind of program they are referred to. It also can determine how much help they get.
For example, children who are the victims of serious crimes committed by adults get a victim's advocate to guide them through the Circuit Court system and ensure they get counseling. But young victims of serious crimes committed by juveniles usually don't get such an advocate, because the state's attorney's office doesn't have enough money to have victim's advocates in juvenile court, the report found.
Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler (D) said his prosecutors make a point of helping children navigate the often intimidating court system. He agreed with the report's recommendation that his office be given additional money to hire more advocates who can focus on getting counseling for children. In particular, he said, children who witness domestic violence need more attention.
"They've often spent months and months watching their father senselessly beat their mother and have heard months and months of screaming," Gansler said.
Another problem cited in the report: Programs to help juvenile victims and witnesses are spread throughout the criminal justice, child welfare and school systems. There is no central place for those trying to help a child find out which programs are offered and who is eligible.
"There are probably more services here than in most places for juvenile victims," Andrews said, "but that doesn't mean they're being used as they should be."
The county doesn't have enough therapists who speak foreign languages for the county's growing immigrant community, the report said. Montgomery also needs more therapists trained in treating young people who have been traumatized. Getting help for children who need counseling but whose families don't have health insurance is "extremely difficult," the report said.
Some school officials complained that they don't get enough information about juvenile offenders who return to school, the report said. School officials often don't know the details of why students have been ordered to wear electronic monitoring devices. Students who might have been a victim of that person should be told that the offender is returning to campus, school officials told the writers of the report, so their schedules can be adjusted to reduce interactions.
Ed Clarke, the county's director of school safety and security, said he agreed with the report's findings that school officials and police iron out which incidents should be investigated as crimes and which should be handled as disciplinary cases.
"The goal should be that we all do a better job of reporting crimes," Clarke said.