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County SVU to provide support to victims of abuse

For victims of abuse, constantly repeating the experiences related to their case can continue to dredge up painful memories and force them to relive past trauma. By establishing a special victims unit with three prosecutors dedicated to victims of child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking and elder abuse, State's Attorney Brian DeLeonardo hopes to provide continuity and personalized attention throughout the process.

"The intent is really to put the resources in place so we can focus on [these victims]," DeLeonardo said.

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The unit will be staffed by senior assistant state's attorneys Amy Blank Ocampo and Ashley Pamer, as well as Assistant State's Attorney Brenda Harkavy. All three have specialized training in some of the relevant areas but will be cross-trained so they are all experts on special victims cases, Ocampo said.

The unit also includes a victim advocate and two investigators trained for special victims cases, DeLeonardo said.

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Prosecutors assigned to the unit will meet regularly and brief one another on cases so that someone with specific knowledge of a victim's issues will be available at all times to speak to victims and handle cases.

"They're not going to have to start over," Ocampo said of the victims.

When the prosecutor assigned to a case is not available, the file will stay between the desks of the special victims attorneys who will be familiar with the case.

"I expect it's going to be a heavy caseload," DeLeonardo said. "It already is."

Having a consistent contact and group of people handling a case can help put the victim at ease, said Katie Cashman, director of Carroll County programs at Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland.

"These are going to be the people helping you from start to finish," she said.

FCS is the domestic violence service provider for Carroll, Cashman said, and provides crisis support, counseling, protective order assistance, support groups, violence intervention programming and a domestic violence safe house.

Case workers also go to court with victims, a process made easier by DeLeonardo's plan to have one regular docket in District Court for domestic cases handled by a special victims prosecutor. Previously, domestic violence cases were not treated differently from any other case when scheduled in District Court and could be anywhere on any docket.

"It really wasn't conducive to being able to provide this kind of service," DeLeonardo said.

District Court commissioners who provide arrested individuals with their preliminary hearing date are already identifying domestic violence cases and scheduling hearings for Wednesday mornings, when the domestic violence docket will be staffed by a special victims unit prosecutor, he said.

Janice Kispert, CEO of Rape Crisis Intervention Service, said she looks forward to strengthening the relationship between her agency and the State's Attorney's Office.

"Anything that we can do as agencies to work closer together … is for the better," she said.

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RCIS provides services — including a 24-hour hotline and Monday-through-Friday walk-in crisis intervention — to anyone age 12 or older affected by sexual violence, Kispert said.

DeLeonardo said he envisions partnering with service providers in the community to give presentations and share resources.

Kispert said getting the word out about RCIS programs and services is a constant goal she faces, so any way to spread the word is beneficial.

According to Cashman, the opportunity to provide education about domestic violence in tandem with prosecutors will hopefully start conversations in the county.

"It still surprises me that in 2015, domestic violence is still somewhat taboo," she said. "People don't want to talk about it."

Both FCS and RCIS already coordinate with the State's Attorney's Office on cases, largely through the Carroll County Advocacy and Investigation Center, a multi-agency organization handling child abuse and sexual assault cases.

Ocampo said CCAIC will be included in the special victims unit and will continue to perform specialized interviews and investigations for cases referred there.

DeLeonardo said he wanted to stress including elder physical abuse in the unit because Carroll has an increasing senior population and long-term abuse can occur without detection. Part of having the unit in place is giving citizens a place to call where an expert will listen to concerns about a loved one.

DeLeonardo also said he envisions visiting senior centers and making it known that his office is available and sharing resources.

"That's really the outreach we want to be able to do," he said, calling his office a "one-stop shop" for anyone in need, even if it doesn't rise to the level of filing charges.

Kispert said that in the past, she's had a prosecutor meet with clients to explain the outcome of an investigation and why charges might not be pursued.

"So many rape cases, they're not prosecutable," she said.

Having the unit available as a resource for victims should help them get answers and remain informed, she said.

410-857-7898

twitter.com/cctcrime

Sources of help

State's Attorney's Office: 410-386-2671

Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland: 410-876-1233

Rape Crisis Intervention Services 24-hour hotline: 410-857-7322

Department of Social Services: 410-386-3300

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