By Shelley Grieshop
-- Editors note: The name of the victim in this story has been changed to protect her privacy.
"Brenda" walked out of a recent court hearing in Mercer County feeling like she'd been "slapped in the face."
She came to speak her mind, she said, to show the defendant, a boy who violated her young daughter, how his actions caused heartache and suffering for their family.
"But I barely got out one sentence," she said. Brenda said the juvenile court judge cut her off in mid-sentence, told her she felt sorry for her and her family but said her words weren't going to sink in to a boy of 11. The judge decided the victim's statement was not going to benefit the offender so it wasn't appropriate, Brenda recently told the newspaper.
Feeling like their family was violated a second time -- this time in court, Brenda said she and her husband were flabbergasted at the "system" and left in tears. She thought to herself, "Why does the boy who molested my daughter have more rights than us?"
Victims' rights many times take a backseat when it comes to cases against juvenile offenders, according to several Ohio victim advocates who spoke recently to The Daily Standard.
Victims of crime in Ohio have rights that are spelled out in the state's constitution in an amendment passed in 1994 under Article 1, sec. 10a. The law, put into place by the state's attorney general's office, states the victim has the right not only to be kept abreast of the case but to present a statement -- written or oral -- at the time of sentencing.
The law, which first focused on adult court, was amended in 1999 to include juvenile court. The problem, however, is the lack of enforcement of the law, which is supposed to be followed by county prosecutors and oddly left up to the discretion of each judge. Judges, advocates say, have the right to dictate what goes on in their courtrooms.
Mercer County Juvenile Court Judge Mary Pat Zitter said she believes victims should be heard and carefully reads all written statements given to her by victims of crimes. But she doesn't think it's always appropriate for victims to speak aloud in court.
"I think the juvenile's age is a big factor. Take a child who is 8, 9, 10 or 11. Hearing some victims speak could destroy a child instead of making him or her into a good citizen," Zitter explained.
Some victims submit letters to the court blaming everything in their life on the actions of the child who violated them or their property, she said. If she feels an oral statement made by the victim will deny the defendant a fair resolution of the matter, or that it may become "too emotional," she will not allow it, Zitter said.
Zitter said her interpretation of the victim rights law is that a victim's statement is to be submitted orally or in writing to the court, not to the defendant.
"A lot of times people don't realize what it (victim's statement) is for. They feel like it's for the defendant, but it's to make the judge aware ... to make (the crime) real to the judge," she said.
Juvenile courts, unlike adult courts, for years have focused on rehabilitating offenders, protecting them in order to get them back on the right track. Victims who have been assaulted, stolen from or violated in any manner by a juvenile are often left out of the justice process, said David Voth, a crime victim advocate.
"Truth is, it's frustrating," said Voth, 19-year director of Crime Victim Services for Allen and Putman counties. "Should there be repercussions for (judges and prosecutors) not obeying the laws? Absolutely. But in reality, there's no meat to the law."
Voth has tried. Last year, he helped propose a law in Ohio that would provide disciplinary action for county prosecutors (who oversee victim's advocates) who don't uphold the rights of victims. The bill never got out of the Senate, Voth said.
He also has testified several times in Congress at the state and national levels to help push victim rights laws into compliance in every courtroom. He was instrumental in drafting those very laws and subsequent amendments that protect victims.
"In the end it's up to the judges to make sure victims get a voice. That's a gray area being debated as we speak," he said.
Views vary on the impact a victim's presence and/or statement at sentencing can truly have on a juvenile offender. Greene County court officials have a reputation for groundbreaking victim rights programs. Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Hutcheson, who handles the juvenile court division, believes input from victims helps offenders come to grip with their actions.
"Our goal here is to have delinquent children understand how their actions affected others," said Hutcheson, who's presided as judge in the Xenia-area court system since 1995. "I don't see how (victims speaking in court) would place a child at risk in most situations."
Hutcheson said the Greene County juvenile court even has a program that places offenders and victims face-to-face -- if the victim chooses -- in what he calls a healing process for both. He, without hesitation, allows victims to "say their peace" aloud in the courtroom without censoring their statement.
Unlike courts in Mercer and Auglaize counties, Greene County gives victim advocates total access to juvenile case files via computer. With the information, advocates are able to contact all victims to offer support and find out who needs to be reimbursed for damages and expenses -- a right of compensation noted in the victim rights law.
Joy Ott, a child psychologist at Children's Medical Center in Dayton, said she feels it's in the best interest of both offenders and victims when victims get their turn to speak up.
"It's almost always a positive thing. Of course, victims shouldn't be forced but if they want to be a part of the process, I believe it's very empowering," said Ott, who routinely works with offenders and victims of assault and abuse.
"Today's kids are more desensitized and often require more 'in-your-face' confrontation in order to get their attention," she added.
For very young victims, a face-to-face confrontation might not be appropriate but adults could speak for them, she said. Some young victims, however, need that chance to air their emotions and heal, she explained.
"For kids who've been violated or assaulted, it is a traumatic experience and they need to show their attacker how the incident impacted their life. It gives the victims a sense of closure," Ott said.
Ott said there are few instances when court confrontations between victims and offenders definitely would not be appropriate such as when the juvenile delinquent is severely depressed, emotionally unstable or suicidal. But overall, most offenders, especially those who sexually abuse others, have little empathy for their victims until they're made to confront them, she said.
"It's like when you were younger and your mother made you go to the neighbor kid you shoved onto the sidewalk. She forced you to look at the bruise you gave him and apologize," she said. "It's all part of the learning process."