"The District of Columbia," asserts Marlene Young, "is one of the worst places to be a victim. For the most part, there are not any services at a crisis level in which there is a victim program that can help get a person back to 'normal' and face the court, the trial situation, before prosecution.
"There is nothing for the assault victim, the robbery victim, the burglary victim. There literally is nothing except a couple of sexual-assault crisis centers and some family-violence shelters."
Young, executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA), says the shelters for victims of spouse and child abuse "have a good reputation in the city but there obviously are too few of them and they have the same problem as any other shelter network does right now in the economic depression."
One of the 7-year-old NOVA's priorities, she says, is to help establish a Washington service program. She finds the current situation "something of an embarrassment for two reasons. This is the nation's capital and, if we're trying to set a victim-rights priority in the justice system, something should be happening here."
In any case, there is a growing local and national awareness of the needs and concerns of victims of crime. This swelling public involvement is marked by sometimes heroic individual action, a proliferation of local victim-support groups and introduction of an increasing amount of legislation. The current campaign for victim rights essentially grew out of something called National Forgotten Victims Week, back in 1975.
The victims movement percolated "until the last two or three years," says Young. "Now almost every governor has signed on to the issue, it receives regular public-service announcements and the public has turned out to meetings and rallies andwhatever for victims' rights.
"In 1979-1980, there were no funded victim services at the state level. There are now 12 states that have them, and there are another 10 to 12 states that have pending legislation."
Young, 36, distinguishes victim-service programs from victim-compensation programs, which started in the early 1960s and resulted primarily from legislative initiatives. (There currently are victim-compensation programs in 38 states, including Maryland and Virginia, and the District of Columbia.)
Three states have formal bills of rights for victims and another three have packages mandating separate procedures and services to benefit victims. A bill of victim rights, among other wide-ranging victim legislation, is to be reintroduced in the Maryland legislature this year.
While Maryland and Virginia have no state-funded victim-services programs, such programs exist. "They stand county-by-county," Young says, "on whether they have good or moderately good services."
Victim-witness management programs--providing notification and information services--are available in Prince George's County, Montgomery County, Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City and Baltimore County. There are a number of victim-witness management programs in most Northern Virginia jurisdictions.
Also, Young says, "In Montgomery County there's a good crisis-intervention center that provides assistance to crime victims as well as other kinds of crisis."
That facility, according to NOVA public affairs director John Stein, 42, is "a rather comprehensive program, the likes of which you won't find anywhere else in the D.C. area."
Both say another exemplary program is located in Loudoun County. "It's probably the closest that provides all services," says Young, "from the time of the crime to that open-ended post-sentencing period."
NOVA has funding this year from the Office of Justice Assistance, Research and Statistics to work in 12 states--including Maryland and Virginia--to bring together existing and potential victim-service networks and help them establish a firm base of funding.
Another of NOVA's primary functions is to act as a clearinghouse. "We have contacts in victim services," Young says, "people involved in victim assistance, in all 50 states. If we receive calls from victims or service groups, we can pick up the phone and put them in touch at least with someone in their state, someone that can help them negotiate their way through issues."
(There are more than two dozen victim-service programs in the Washington area, some voluntary and some with paid staffs, dealing with such things as spouse and child abuse and sexual assault.)
Most of NOVA's appeals for help, Young says, come from "the worst possible cases, the murders, the wretched murders, the heinous crimes, ruinous sexual assaults, brutally beaten people that, for one reason or another, have not had success with their local justice department."
One call was from a woman who had been trying unsuccessfully for more than two years to learn the disposition of a case in which a man had murdered her brother. What NOVA discovered: A week or so after the murder, the state's attorney changed and her brother's case was "lost between the cracks." The prosecution made no case and the judge gave the killer 90 days.
"With some victims," says Young, "we're in correspondence for as much as six months. Those are people that we're having a hard time helping. Staying in touch with them may be a help in itself on an emotional basis . . . that someone continues to care."
Individuals do make a difference, she says, citing a particular example in New Mexico. A mother whose daughter was savagely murdered in New York has, in the last two or three years, "become a leader that literally has turned New Mexico around. She moved victim compensation through, has a statewide organization that provides voluntary victim services, including counseling and developing self-help groups. She has five pieces of legislation she's working for now."
The New Mexico woman, Young points out, is pushing for broad-based victim services and compensation. NOVA, as a national organization, tries to focus "primarily on appropriate treatment of victims and survivors, rather than dealing with what the offender should have."
"Some of that nuke-the-offender stuff," Stein adds, "is once more playing the old game of ignoring the victim. A metaphor of what we continually have to deal with is that of the classic ideological conservative stepping over the victim to beat up on the offender and the classic liberal stepping over the victim to minister to the offender."
"Tremendous strides have been made in the victim assistance movement in the last two or three years," Young stresses, "and we expect to see far more. The establishment of the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime helped bring it to a certain pinnacle, but that again becomes a start for now really seeing the rights and services implemented."
Young's response to the final report of the presidential task force: "At least 60 of the 68 task force recommendations call for rights and services which NOVA has long promoted. We will now push even harder for their implementation."
NOVA's members include victim-witness counselors, district attorneys and law enforcement officials, crisis intervention specialists, domestic violence and rape crisis workers, former victims and "increasing numbers of the general public." Victims seeking assistance and people interested in becoming involved in victim-assistance activities may reach NOVA at: 1757 Park Road NW, Washington, D.C. 20010, or by calling (202) 232-8560.