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Crime Victim Compensation

Crime victim compensation programs—operating in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and Guam—provide financial assistance to victims for crime-related out-of-pocket expenses, such as medical care, mental health counseling, lost wages, and, in cases of homicide, funerals, loss of support, and counseling for secondary victims. Many programs also pay for crime scene cleanup, durable medical equipment like wheelchairs and hospital beds, transportation to medical providers, rehabilitation, physical therapy, and ramps or modifications to homes for paralyzed victims. All state victim compensation programs are “payors of last resort,” covering losses not recouped from other sources such as public or private insurance, employee benefits, offender restitution, or civil judgments. The state programs set their own administrative rules and reimbursement maximums, which average $25,000 and range from a low of $10,000 to no limit for medical expenses (as in New York). A few states set higher limits for catastrophic or permanent injuries that could be used for special home and health aids. In view of the large medical, rehabilitative, and counseling expenses faced by gun victims, participants agreed that VOCA- and state-funded compensation programs provide much-needed financial assistance. Although there is no available estimate of the number of gun victims who benefit from these programs,48 Program Director of the D.C. Superior Court’s Crime Victims Compensation Program Laura Banks Reed stated that 30 percent of claims paid by her program are to gun victims.

We are in a new era of crime victim compensation: program funding is more secure than ever before, and state administrators are more responsive to the needs of crime victims and flexible in administering their programs. Participants identified special needs of gun violence victims and made the following recommendations for state crime victim compensation programs.

  • Survivors of serious gunshot injuries may require long-term mental health counseling. Currently, the states impose many different limits on mental health claims, for example, limits on the total dollar amount and the number of sessions. As a result, the percentage of compensation dollars spent by the states on mental health claims varies enormously. Nearly all states pay for grief counseling for survivors of homicide, and some pay for mental health counseling for family members who witness the crime.

RECOMMENDATION: Where necessary, state compensation caps and limits should be raised for mental health counseling to permit long-term counseling. States should consider extending benefits to more secondary victims, such as students or coworkers who witness a shooting, even if they are not family members and were not threatened by the shooter.

  • In addition to medical and mental health expenses, victims whose brains have been damaged or spinal cords have been injured as a result of gun violence may require long-term care, special transportation services, housing modifications, and occupational therapy. For the most severely injured victims, durable medical equipment such as a powered wheelchair can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $25,000, in addition to other equipment that may be needed. Many have living arrangements that can’t be modified to meet their needs—their third- or fourth-floor walk-up apartments are not wheelchair accessible, and they cannot afford to move. In many cases, the parents or family members don’t have the resources or services to stay home and care for the injured person; there are a large number of 21-year-olds on ventilators in nursing homes being covered by Medicaid.

RECOMMENDATION: Limits on medical expenses should be raised for catastrophic injuries, and programs should be flexible in defining eligible expenses as the needs of gun victims become clear to them. For example, New Jersey pays for childcare and daycare services along with domestic help at a rate of $50 a day. This type of innovative benefit allows family members to continue working rather than having to stay home to care for a minor victim or an adult.

  • Although eligibility requirements vary somewhat from state to state, they all require victim (or claimant) cooperation with police and prosecutors. These requirements may be difficult for gun violence victims in some cases and may discourage them from applying for compensation benefits.

RECOMMENDATION: Encouraging victim cooperation with law enforcement is a valid goal of state compensation programs. However, the Federal VOCA Victim Compensation Final Program Guidelines encourage program administrators to be flexible about cooperation requirements in cases where they may present special barriers for the victim. Law enforcement personnel, prosecutors, and compensation program staff should be trained to understand and be sensitive to the fears of these victims.

  • Most compensation programs have time limits for filing compensation applications. Although many states have specific exceptions or will waive filing limits for minors, the time limits may still disqualify some teen and young adult gun victims who need mental health counseling but are embarrassed to come forward at first and admit they need help.

RECOMMENDATION: Compensation programs should waive time limits for filing applications to avoid penalizing young victims.

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Working With Victims of Gun Violence
July 2001
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