Chapter 5 Financial Assistance for Victims of Crime
Crime victim compensation provides greatly needed financial assistance for crime victims in the aftermath of victimization. All fifty states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, have compensation programs that can pay for medical and counseling expenses, lost wages and support, funeral bills, and a variety of other costs. While each state operates under its own law, the basic requirements, benefits, and procedures are quite similar. Every person who works in law enforcement and victim services has a professional responsibility to tell victims about compensation opportunities so that they can gain access to this important resource in the recovery process.
Upon completion of this section, students will understand the following concepts:
It is well known that victims of violent crime suffer physical injury and emotional trauma. What may be less recognized is that many victims also face serious financial setbacks as they struggle to pay for the costs of recovery. For some victims the most important victim assistance they can receive is help in paying for medical care, counseling, and lost income in the aftermath of crime.
The good news is that every state has a crime victim compensation program that can provide substantial financial assistance to crime victims and their families. Victim compensation programs serve as the primary means of financial aid for thousands of crime victims each year. And while no amount of money can erase the trauma and grief that victims suffer, this aid can be crucial in the recovery process. By paying for care that restores victims' physical and mental health, and by replacing lost income for victims who cannot work or for families who lose a breadwinner, compensation programs are helping victims regain their lives and their financial stability.
Compensation for victims of crime is one of the earliest types of assistance for victims. Ancient history traces the idea of victim compensation to the Babylonian civilization before 2380 B.C. In the 1950s, Margery Fry, a member of parliament in Great Britain, initiated legislation to establish the first compensation programs in modern society, which began operating in Great Britain and New Zealand in the early 1960s.
Crime victim compensation was the first type of victim service established in this country. California began operating the first program in 1965, seven years before the original two victim assistance programs opened their doors. By 1972 nine states had created compensation programs, and the rest of the states followed suit over the next two decades. In 1998, Puerto Rico became the latest jurisdiction to implement a compensation program. There is no federal or national victim compensation program; each state operates independently under its own state law, but all states are expected to cover federal victims of crime. Programs that meet certain conditions (and all of them do) are eligible for grant funds through the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) to supplement their state resources.
Victims of nearly every type of crime of violence or abuse, including rape, assault, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, and drunk driving, are eligible to apply for financial help. Family members of homicide victims also are eligible for benefits. About a third of all the victims currently helped by compensation programs are children, most of whom are victims of sexual abuse.
Compensation programs can pay for a wide variety of expenses and losses related to criminal injury and homicide. Beyond medical and mental health treatment, lost wages and support, and funerals, a number of programs also cover crime-scene cleanup, travel costs to receive treatment, moving expenses when victims are forced to change residences, and the cost of housekeeping and child care. Programs pay only those expenses not covered by insurance or other sources that are readily available to the victim.
Eligibility requirements are broadly similar among the states, though in individual cases, it is important to check with the specific state program involved to know exactly what those requirements are. Programs generally require victims to report the crime to law enforcement and cooperate in any subsequent investigation and prosecution, though many states can waive these requirements for good cause. Victims cannot have been committing crimes or been involved in other substantial misconduct when victimized, and family members are generally eligible only if the victim meets all requirements.
Telling victims about compensation is the professional obligation of everyone who works in victim assistance and law enforcement. Indeed, providing information to victims about compensation is a mandated responsibility of all victim service programs that receive federal funds through VOCA. And law enforcement officers increasingly are being required by state constitutional amendments to provide information about compensation and other services.
Training about compensation should be an integral part of the program plan of every victim service organization, police department, and prosecutor's office. A wealth of material is available from each state program, including applications and brochures, and compensation programs welcome the opportunity to talk with and train professionals in victim services and law enforcement.
Victim compensation is one of three primary types of financial assistance available to crime victims in addition to restitution and civil recovery. Compensation differs from restitution, in that compensation does not require the apprehension and conviction of an individual offender to provide financial relief to the victim. Instead, state compensation programs gather funds through relatively small assessments against all criminals, and then distribute those funds to the victims who need help. Restitution, on the other hand, requires that the criminal who injured a specific victim be ordered to reimburse the victim for the victim's losses. In contrast to victim compensation, which simply requires an application to a state program, civil recovery occurs when the victim files a suit in civil court against the offender and is paid by the offender as a result of a verdict or settlement in favor of the victim.
All compensation programs cover the same major types of expenses, although their specific limits may vary. The primary compensable costs covered by all states are as follows:
Medical care is the primary item paid for by compensation programs. This can include emergency room treatment as well as follow-up medical treatment. Mental health counseling also is an important benefit, not only for victims, but also for family members in homicides and some other crimes. Victims who cannot work because of their crime-related injuries may qualify for lost wages, and dependents of victims who are killed are eligible for lost support. Programs also pay a substantial percentage of their total awards to cover funeral costs.
In addition, the following are a number of other expenses that are paid for by some programs:
Florida, New Jersey, and New York also cover very limited amounts of personal property lost or damaged during the crime. (Florida and New York have $500 limits on this expense and New Jersey has a $200 limit. Florida and New Jersey also limit payment for personal property to elderly victims and disabled victims.) All states will cover medically necessary equipment, such as eyeglasses or hearing aids, that are damaged during the crime, or that become necessary as a result of it.
MAXIMUMS AND LIMITS
Maximum benefits available to victims from the state programs generally range between $10,000 and $25,000, though a few states have higher maximums. In addition, many states have lower limits on specific compensable expenses, like funerals and mental health counseling. A few states also can provide extra benefits in homicides or catastrophic-injury cases. When helping specific victims, it is important to check with individual states to learn exactly what these limits are.
Some, but not all, compensation programs have established procedures allowing the program to make an emergency award to a victim within a few days or weeks. Many programs, however, have found that the difficulty of verifying the claims under such expedited situations has a significant impact on their ability to process other claims; so they limit emergency awards to cases of extreme hardship and pay only limited amounts, such as up to $500 or $1,000.
All of the state crime victim compensation programs share the same basic eligibility requirements, though individual differences exist. Again, it is important for anyone helping victims to check with the individual state where the crime occurred to determine the specific requirements of that state.
The threshold requirement is that the victim be a victim of a violent or personal crime. Nearly every type of violent or personal crime is compensable, including assault, domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, child sexual abuse, homicide, and drunk driving. Property crimes are not compensable, except in a few states in very limited amounts.
While specific eligibility requirements vary slightly from state to state, all programs have the same basic criteria. Generally, the victim must do the following:
Be innocent of criminal activity or significant misconduct that caused or contributed to the victim's injury or death. States vary on how this requirement is interpreted, but it generally means that eligibility is denied to anyone injured while committing a crime, such as dealing drugs, or by engaging willingly in a mutual fight not necessitated by self-defense. Many programs can reduce payments rather than deny them entirely when a victim's conduct has contributed to the crime.
The eligibility of a victim's dependents or other "secondary victims" generally hinges on the eligibility of the "direct" victim (the one who actually suffered the injury or death). For example, if a homicide victim was engaged in criminal activity, the family generally would be ineligible for any benefits.
Since each state operates under its own law and rules, it is important for those accessing any program to check with that program to learn exactly what the requirements are.
Where to apply. Victims must apply for compensation in the state where the crime occurs, regardless of the state of residency of the victim. In other words, if someone from Florida becomes a victim of a crime in Minnesota, the victim or the victim's family must apply for compensation in Minnesota.
Until recently, Nevada was an exception to this rule, since it did not cover nonresidents for crimes occurring within its borders. However, in 1999 Nevada changed its law to allow coverage of nonresidents.
Most states do not cover crimes occurring outside their own state borders, but there are a few that do. California and Ohio, for example, will accept applications from their residents who are victimized in other states, but require that the victim first file an application in the state where the crime occurred before accessing the home state's program.
While most states do not cover crimes occurring to their residents who are victimized in foreign countries, there is one major exception: all states will cover crimes of terrorism occurring to their residents outside the United States. For example, this means that a resident of Vermont who is victimized in a terrorist incident in Turkey could apply in Vermont for victim compensation. In recent years, state programs have received applications from victims of the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, as well as several other incidents. (The federal government has established coverage of terrorism in foreign countries as a condition for state compensation program to receive VOCA grant funds, and all of the states have accepted the condition.)
The application process.
The process, from start to finish, usually averages between four to six months. Compensation programs are dependent on many individuals to provide them with information before decisions can be made: the victim, police, medical providers and counselors, insurance companies, employers, and others, depending on the expenses claimed. Some programs will try to contact providers of services who are awaiting payment to assure them that the process is ongoing and will likely result in payment. Victim assistants may be able to help in this regard as well by advocating for the victim with other service providers.
Professionals who work with victims have a crucial role to play in the process of seeking compensation. Compensation programs depend almost entirely on people working in law enforcement and victim services to let victims know that the programs exist. Compensation programs themselves, with limited staffs devoted mainly to claims processing, simply are not designed to handle initial contacts with individual victims. Compensation programs focus their efforts on providing training and information to victim assistants and police who are in the best position to tell victims about compensation opportunities. While programs also distribute brochures, posters, and public service announcements, the best way for a victim to hear about compensation is when she or he is actually facing issues relating to the costs of crime.
For many crime victims, missing the compensation application filing deadline is one of the most painful "second injuries" in the aftermath of victimization. Unfortunately, when this happens, it is almost always due to a failure on the part of a police officer or victim assistant to tell the victim about compensation opportunities. Every person who works in law enforcement and victim services has a professional responsibility to ensure that victims do not miss out on their opportunity to apply. To ensure that this responsibility is met, training about compensation should be an integral part of the program plan of every victim service organization, police department, and prosecutor's office. A wealth of material is available from each state program, including brochures, applications, and information cards, that can help in this effort. Compensation programs welcome the opportunity to meet with individuals and groups, and usually will make staff members available to speak at conferences and meetings.
What specifically can the victim service professional do to make sure that victims get every chance they can to access financial help? Here are some ideas:
State compensation programs receive funding from a variety of sources. However, the large majority of programs get their funds either entirely or primarily from the offenders themselves. Typically, a state will require that any individual convicted of a misdemeanor or felony pay a relatively small fee (usually between $10 and $50) into the crime victim compensation fund. These small assessments build a substantial fund that is then used to make awards to individual victims. Less than a dozen states depend on legislative appropriations to make awards to victims.
Some programs are gaining substantial amounts of additional revenue by recovering money owed to victims through restitution and civil suit judgments. Programs require that when a victim is paid by the program, amounts recovered from the offender through court-ordered criminal restitution or amounts awarded in civil suits be returned to the program if those amounts cover expenses already paid for by the program. Some state compensation programs are making special efforts to work with prosecutors, judges, corrections, and probation officials to ensure that restitution is ordered and collected. However, recovery of this nature is a minor source of total program income.
VICTIMS OF CRIME ACT
With the enactment of the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 (VOCA), state compensation programs became eligible for federal funds to supplement state funding for awards to victims. Through annual VOCA grants, federal funds provide 20 to 25 percent of each state's annual budget.
VOCA stipulates that a state may receive an annual federal grant totaling 40% of the amount the state awards to victims. In other words, if a state spends $1 million of its own money in awards to victims in a particular year, the federal government will give it an additional $400,000 to spend. This results in a 72% to 28% split in state-federal dollars spent each year (i.e., of every $1.4 million awarded to victims by a state, $1 million will be from state funds, and $400,000 will be from federal funds). States bear nearly all of the administrative costs of operating the program, since at least 95% of the federal money must be awarded to victims, and only the remaining 5% can be used by the state for administrative purposes.
To qualify for federal funding, each state must meet the following VOCA requirements (every state currently meets them):
Compensation programs are administered by state governments under state law. About a third of the programs are located in departments of public safety or criminal justice planning agencies, and a fifth are in offices of attorneys general. Arizona and Colorado are unique in operating compensation programs through local prosecutors' offices, under state law and coordination.
Staff sizes tend to be quite small, with thirty-six states operating with fewer than ten people. Only a few states operate with more than twenty employees, California being the largest with over 400 workers.
Annual payouts also vary, mostly according to the size of the state. California leads the nation with about $75 million awarded to victims each year, and Texas is next with about $30 million in annual payouts. Nine of the smallest states pay out less than one-half million dollars each year.
The state compensation programs are represented by the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards (NACVCB), which promotes an exchange of information and ideas through a network of compensation programs around the country and by various training and technical assistance activities. The NACVCB, which was founded in 1977, provides a strong national voice on all matters affecting state compensation programs before Congress and the Office for Victims of Crime.
COVERAGE OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT VICTIMS
A number of compensation programs are striving to provide benefits to more victims of domestic violence and sexual assault by liberalizing rules, being more flexible in interpreting requirements, and adding benefits to meet these victims' specific needs.
Requirements that victims report to police and cooperate in investigation and prosecution of crimes can be problematic for many victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. While nearly all programs still require some to report to law enforcement, a few programs, such as New York and Idaho, may accept the victim's seeking of a temporary restraining order as sufficient to meet the reporting requirement. A number of programs also have become more flexible in waiving cooperation requirements if the victim's health or safety may be jeopardized.
Programs also are searching for ways to meet more of the needs that victims of domestic violence and sexual assault may have. Some can pay for moving expenses if the victim needs to relocate. Some states now can cover child witnesses to domestic violence, even when the child was not directly under any threat of violence. A few, like New Jersey, Texas, Vermont, and Wyoming, can even replace income the victim received from the offender if that economic support is no longer forthcoming. Alabama has instituted a special process, independent of its regular application procedures, to pay for a number of miscellaneous expenses that domestic violence victims may incur.
Some compensation programs are working closely with prosecutors, judges, corrections departments, and probation and parole officials to hold offenders accountable for repaying to the program the amounts it awards to the victims of those offenders. These programs make sure that prosecutors are informed about awards to victims, so that restitution can be sought and ordered in those cases, and if possible, paid directly back to the compensation program itself. Some programs follow up with various officials responsible for enforcing restitution orders to monitor compliance and urge continuing enforcement. Some compensation programs also monitor civil suits filed by victims against offenders, and communicate with attorneys representing the victims to ensure that any amounts recovered for expenses paid by the compensation program are returned to the program. Alabama, California, and Iowa are examples of programs that are particularly aggressive in recovering funds from offenders.
Recognizing the importance of working closely with victims and their representatives to define and resolve issues, a number of compensation programs have established advisory committees composed of various "constituent groups" to help in formulating policies and improving procedures. Pennsylvania, for example, has representatives of domestic violence and sexual assault victims as well as police and prosecutors on its broad-based committee, which has examined the program's statute, rules, and procedures to help make the program more responsive to victims. Advisory groups in Washington state and the District of Columbia are other good examples. An advisory group in Ohio recently helped the program revise its application to make it more user-friendly.
A number of compensation programs are working closely with disaster-preparedness officials and victim service programs to ensure that they can be part of a coordinated response to mass victimizations. School shootings in Arkansas and Oregon found compensation programs directly involved in ensuring that victims and their families had quick access to financial assistance. The Oklahoma compensation program has helped numerous victims and families who have suffered financial losses resulting from the bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City.
2. Generally, what is the range of maximum benefits available to victims from compensation programs?
3. What are the five primary compensable costs covered by VOCA funds in all states?
4. Are U.S. citizens who become victims of terrorism in foreign countries eligible for crime victim compensation from state programs in the U.S.?
5. What is the primary source of funding for most state compensation programs?
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