For Montgomery County Police Capt. Carol M. Weingard, crimes against children, such as neglect and physical and sexual abuse, warrant the same investigative resources, prosecutorial priority and public attention as crimes against adults.

"Just because they're children, their claims should not be minimized," said Weingard, director of the police department's youth division. "These children will be our adults of tomorrow."

Weingard, the county's highest-ranking female officer, said police, prosecutors, judges and social workers must work more closely to improve the arrest, criminal prosecution, sentencing and counseling of child abusers. "The whole criminal justice system needs to be informed about what's happening in this area," she said.

Last October, Weingard, 42, was instrumental in setting up a child abuse subcommittee for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, made up of representatives from 19 jurisdictions reaching from Loudoun County in Northern Virginia to Charles County in southern Maryland.

In addition, Weingard's 19-officer youth division, one of the few local police agencies with a unit specifically devoted to crimes against children, has been cited for national awards for its aggressive educational and investigative techniques.

For example, the division, based at the Wheaton/Glenmont district police station, has a pedophile section and employs state-of-the-art DNA tests of blood and semen to bolster youngsters' testimony.

One investigator is assigned to work with the county's 118 elementary schools, as well as parent and community groups.

Weingard, who heads the COG subcommittee, said she wants the regional group to act as a clearinghouse and training center for abuse investigators and other law enforcement officials. "We can't afford to be caught short," she said. "It frustrates everybody when children are unable to be heard."

In the past decade, the number of child abuse and neglect cases has skyrocketed, in large part because of increased public awareness in reporting cases and tougher state and national laws that require reports on suspected cases of abuse.

In Montgomery, the youth division last year investigated 733 child neglect and physical and sexual abuse cases, a 17 percent increase over 1988, department statistics show. Child abuse victims range from infants to adults who, as a result of therapeutic counseling sessions, are reporting sexual offenses that occurred when they were children.

One recent case involved John S. Mackintosh, a former high school football coach charged in June with sexually molesting two players about eight years ago. According to police statements, Mackintosh fondled the youths at a Silver Spring apartment and at a school gym. Both youths, now adults, recently reported the alleged episodes.

Weingard's stewardship of the child abuse division is "sort of a homecoming" for the 19-year police veteran. In 1971, when the Towson State University graduate joined the county police force, female officers were assigned to the Juvenile Aid Bureau, the forerunner of the youth division. At that time, female officers were barred from patrol duty.

Weingard, whose father had served as a county civilian police dispatcher, spent seven years in the juvenile unit, primarily dealing with runaways, truants and criminal juvenile cases.

In 1979 the county police department revamped its child protection programs, following the highly publicized Donna Stern case, in which a 9-year-old girl died of injuries inflicted by an abusive mother.

"The Stern case really started us thinking about the abuse situation," said Weingard. "We realized we needed to deal with it."

Weingard's rise through the department has involved stints in three of the four district stations and most of the major divisions. She spent three years as an undercover drug investigator before being promoted to a sergeant in charge of the patrol division in Rockville.

Because she had not been a patrol officer, Weingard said the task of being a female supervisor, in charge of others who had the street experience, was a "very challenging, new assignment. I had to dig down real deep to find out what I was made of," she said in an interview.

As a lieutenant, Weingard managed the county police training academy for three years before being elevated to her current rank and post 14 months ago.

Weingard said child abuse and neglect complaints often are "delicate and distasteful" cases that require specially trained investigators. "Not everyone wants to do this," she said. "But those who do understand one thing: Child abuse is a cycle that must be broken."