Under fluorescent lights in a stuffy Baltimore-area courtroom, a teenager dressed in black stepped up to the prosecutor’s table.

Peering out from under long, curly bangs, the teen quietly but firmly described the anguish of being repeatedly plied with alcohol and drugs and then sexually assaulted by a much older manager from their work. Depression, migraines and panic attacks followed the assaults.

“I am now constantly on edge,” the teenager said during a victim impact statement. Later, the teen withstood cross-examination by the defendant’s attorney, who tried to use text messages to imply the sexual contact was consensual.

Throughout the grueling, three-hour sentencing hearing, the lawyers and judge were careful to refer to the teen and two other young victims by their initials, rather than their full names.

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When a father spoke about his child’s destructive coping mechanisms after being sexually assaulted by the same store manager, he spoke of his child only by a first initial, M.

“This has devastated our family,” the father said. Whatever happens to the defendant, “we have a life sentence,” the father said.

But for that anonymity to happen for the traumatized young victims, it took a persistent parent and prosecutor working with a judge to get the victims’ full names shielded.

News organizations, including The Baltimore Banner, generally do not publish the names of victims of crimes such as sexual assault, including children.

But the victims’ names are available for anyone to see in publicly-available court documents, including indictments and statements of charges.

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The process to remove those names is opaque and cumbersome — a facet of the justice system that lawmakers and advocates are working to change.

A bill is moving through the Maryland General Assembly that would require that the names of minors who are victims of crime be redacted from publicly-available court documents. All of the parties directly involved in a case — including criminal defendants — would still have access to documents including any minor victims’ names.

“This is a great balance for the defense as well as the victim,” said Sen. Charles Sydnor, a Baltimore County Democrat and one of the lead bill sponsors. “This bill in no way hinders a defendant’s right to defend themselves.”

The other lead sponsor is Del. N. Scott Phililps, also a Baltimore County Democrat.

“In an abundance of caution, we want to protect our children,” Phillips told his colleagues during a hearing last week.

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Supporters of the bill note that it’s become increasingly easy to find out information about court cases. Many Marylanders know how to use the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website, and now public computer terminals are available in nearly all courthouses that print out full documents in court cases. It takes just a little bit of know-how to find out the full details of a crime, including the names of the victims.

“Nowadays, it only takes a few clicks at a kiosk in the courthouse and the next thing you know, a few clicks on social media, and the name of a victim can go out to thousands of thousands of people,” said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who testified in support of the bill.

Debbie Feinstein from the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office said the current practice is for prosecutors to file motions so that charging documents only include initials instead of full names. But even that isn’t ideal, she said, because in cases of abuse within a family, it can be easy to connect the dots and identify the victims.

“Their names shouldn’t be out there in public-facing documents,” she testified. “This is a very straightforward bill.”

The only opposition has come from the Maryland Judiciary, which sent in written testimony saying the change is unnecessary. No one from the judiciary testified at either one of the two hearings that have been held on the bill this year, and the office did not respond to a request for comment.

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Supporters argue that the current process is cumbersome and it’s better to shield all names rather than force them to apply for shielding in each case. The bill still allows a court to publish the names if there is clear evidence that there is good cause to do so.

After some tweaks, the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill last week, the day after the man who pleaded guilty to assaulting the three Baltimore-area teens was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with all but five years suspended. He was awarded credit for more than a year’s worth of time he spent in jail and on home detention before his guilty plea.

Following the committee vote, the measure should be taken up by the full Senate this week. The House of Delegates passed a version of the bill unanimously last year.

Advocates say that victims may be deterred from coming forward and reporting crimes, knowing that their personal information and details of what happened to them could be out in public to be discussed. The change is straightforward enough to make, and will be critical to help survivors of sexual violence, said Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Maryland’s state appeals courts already redact the names of children who are victims, and federal courts have stricter rules about children’s identities, Jordan said.

She told lawmakers: “There’s really never a reason that we should be exposing kids to this sort of public ridicule or discrimination.”

Pamela Wood covers Maryland politics and government. She previously reported for The Baltimore Sun, The Capital and other Maryland newspapers. A graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, she lives in northern Anne Arundel County.

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