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States reserve millions of dollars for victims of crime. But some survivors of gun violence do not get the funds they desperately need.

by Elizabeth Van Brocklin

Hours after an armed man killed 58 people and wounded hundreds more in Las Vegas last October, donations began to arrive the victims and their families. A GoFundMe campaign launched by local leaders would raise $ 11 million in three weeks. Uber offered free trips to blood donation sites and hotels offered courtesy rooms for family members. A group of hospitals treated 71 victims and then promised to give up all their medical bills.

The influx of aid for victims of mass shooting is not exclusive to Las Vegas: at least $ 28 million was donated after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut; $ 2.4 million after San Bernardino; $ 31 million after Orlando.

However, mass shootings, despite the attention they receive, are not the norm. Every year, tens of thousands of people are injured in incidents of gun violence that have become almost routine. The wounded are disproportionately young black men, who have few services specifically designed to support them in the awakening of violence. Some victims require extensive therapy to re-learn to write, speak or walk. There may be follow-up surgeries to remove bullet fragments, treatment for pain and infections, and counseling for stress, anxiety, and depression. Some miss work because of their injuries, or they can not work at all. Approximately one third of hospitalized bullet patients do not have insurance.

There is a resource to help victims of vulnerable crimes, including shooting survivors, although many never take advantage of it. Victim compensation programs in all states reimburse victims and their families for expenses such as medical bills, mental health counseling, lost wages and funeral service costs. Income for state programs comes from criminal fees and fines, along with federal grants under the Victims of Crime Act or VOCA. In 2016, compensation programs paid more than 250,000 claims totaling more than $ 348 million, according to federal data.

Victim advocates, anti-violence activists and social workers interviewed by The Trace said that victims of violent crime face numerous obstacles in applying for funds. They say that for traumatized victims, eligibility criteria can be disappointing, difficult requests and lengthy processing times. Even the most basic requirements for receiving compensation, such as reporting crime to law enforcement authorities, can deter victims, especially those in neighborhoods where distrust in the criminal justice system is high.


The most annoying thing, advocates say, is that the state laws that govern compensation programs can, ultimately, exclude people with the greatest risk of being shot. While black men experience violence disproportionately, they are also more likely than whites to be convicted of a felony, which in some states may disqualify people who receive funds.

Compensation to victims "is designed to really help victims and yet it is ironic, because it often increases the pain they are going through," said Alicia Boccellari, clinical psychologist and founder of El Centro University. California and San Francisco Trauma Recovery, which provides mental health services and case management for survivors of violent crime. "It gives them a lot of expectations, when they really have so few internal resources to deal with all this. Sometimes the victim ends up feeling more victimized. "

As part of my ongoing reports on gun violence, I interviewed more than two dozen survivors of gunshots and loved ones. victims of homicides to better understand how the compensation system fits into their experiences, about half had not requested compensation in the first place, several had misconceptions about the existence of compensation and how to access it. a waste of time, one compared the victim's compensation to "an urban legend." Others said they were denied because they did not meet their state's eligibility criteria.

13-year-old son of Kellie Cors-Atherly, Todd, was killed in Pleasantville, New Jersey, in 2012. He knew nothing about the compensation until it was too much late to submit the application, and says he resorted to his savings. To move to a safer neighborhood. "If I had known that there was money for the relocation, if I had known that there was advisory money, yes, I would have requested it," he said.

Cors-Atherly now runs a local nonprofit organization to support survivors of violent crime, a job that includes spreading information about compensation. "Many of the families that I have come across do not even remember that someone from victim compensation has approached them," he said.

Navigating the compensation process from a wheelchair

On the morning of December 13, 2015, Ernest Edmonds, Jr., left a club in Newark when, according to him, a man he asked for a cigarette. According to Edmonds, the man tried to rob him, and while defending himself he heard a loud snap. Looking down, he saw a red flower on the stripes of his Houston Astros baseball jersey. Then he fainted. Hours later, police found Edmonds on the floor with a cut lip and a bullet wound in the back. Halfway down the block, an officer discovered his hat, lighter and observed him in a pool of blood

Edmonds, 35, woke up from a coma several weeks later and discovered I was paralyzed from the waist down. The bullet had pierced his back, only to be stopped by his spine.

"You figure you're 32, 33 years of walking, and then you're not walking anymore," he said. "It's completely different." Before the shooting, he had lived in the peach color of his cousin. House in East Orange, New Jersey. Thirteen steps led to the front porch. Then two more flights to get to his bedroom. Now that he's dependent on a wheelchair, Edmonds asked himself, How am I going to do this?

At the physical rehabilitation center, Edmonds heard that there was financial assistance for victims of crimes like him. He searched online and found a phone number for the New Jersey Offenders Compensation Office. In their state, eligible victims can receive up to $ 2,500 in relocation expenses and up to 104 weeks of loss of income, among other benefits.

Edmonds says he would use the money to pay for his own place and compensate for the loss of income. "I need it so much," he said. "Could you help me get into a wheelchair accessible apartment? I could help with many backed accounts. I can not do for my children like I used to. " Since he was a teenager, Edmonds worked for a family-owned construction business, where he said he earned around $ 650 per week. Now he has to make a disability check of $ 766.25 for the entire month.

A shooting in 2015 left Ernest Edmonds, Jr., paralyzed and isolated. Strange to attend family gatherings and pick up their children from school. He now stays in the living room of his mother's apartment, but hopes to move to his own home soon with wheelchair access.

After speaking with the compensation office in New Jersey, Edmonds received a blank application and began filling it out. The application asks victims of crime to include supporting documentation, including copies of detailed receipts, invoices, insurance information and work payment receipts. "It's like a list of 15 things they're asking for, and I could only get, like, six of them," Edmonds recalled. Stuck, left the form aside.

One morning, last November, Edmonds shifted a special mattress prescribed to help prevent sores. His makeshift room had taken over the dining room of his cousin's house, where large strips of cloth covered the windows. He used a claw grip to lift a bottle of Sprite from a nearby table. Incense that mixes with the smoke of Edmonds cigarettes, that smoked in chain; talking about what had changed since the shooting made him feel stressed.

"It's like a prison here, it can not go out, it can not move," said Nicole, Edmonds' younger sister. "You could also raise the windows and soak."

The shooting transformed Edmonds' life. He lost the ability to bathe or dress alone. While he lived in his cousin's house, he rarely left, except for appointments with the doctor, and then needed two or three people to beat him in his wheelchair on the front steps. To get something from his old room, his cousin would have to face him from the third floor. "Being dependent on so many people, I think that's the hardest thing," he said. "Without my family, my sister, seeing my children, I really could have given up."

Last spring, a former roommate saw Edmonds struggling and encouraged him to restart the victim's compensation process. They filled out the application together and requested the help of a local lawyer. However, there were obstacles: Edmonds could not easily go to the police department to obtain the report of the incident, so he had to wait months for the detective to take him away. At one point, someone stole his phone and lost all his contacts, including the lawyer's number.

December marked the second anniversary of his shooting. That month he moved to his mother's apartment, where there are no steps to enter through the front door. You can move more easily there, but it is still difficult to take a shower on your own; Counters and cabinets are not designed for someone in a wheelchair. On Christmas day, he stayed home and watched basketball while his family celebrated at his grandmother's house. Later, his sister brought him a plate of food.

As of the publication of this article, his application had not yet been submitted.

Victims question eligibility criteria

States began establishing compensation programs for victims in the 1960s, to extend a line of financial assistance to victims and encourage them to report crimes. In 1984, Congress enacted the Crime Victims Act, which created a federal fund to supplement state compensation efforts and also supports agencies and organizations that work on behalf of victims of crime. At the beginning of 2018, the estimated balance of the fund was $ 11.8 billion. Only part of that will go directly to the victims.

Compensation funds are designed for the most vulnerable, those who have exhausted all other options to cover their expenses. It is a "payer of last resort", which means that it only fills the gaps that other financial resources do not cover. "If a person has some kind of insurance, even if it's Medicaid, we can not do much for them," said James McCurtis, manager of the Division of Victim Services in Michigan. "We are limited by the statute in terms of what we can do."

Those limits may end up excluding people who say they desperately need help.

Rita Jolly, of Southfield, Michigan, says her state's compensation program failed her. In 2013, his son Terry was murdered in the yard of his old elementary school in Detroit. In her grief, Jolly had to take a personal leave from work, without pay. Finally, he received money for the funeral through his son's life insurance policy, but he did not cover the additional expenses: the flowers, the funeral programs and the clothes in which they would bury Terry: blue and blue sweatshirt, pants and socks, which represent your love. of the basketball team at the University of Michigan. "I could not bring myself to put it in a suit, because I did not wear a suit," Jolly said. "He was a 16 year old boy!"

The children of Rita Jolly, Terry Jones, Jr., and Shalita Renee Hunter, were killed in separate incidents of gun violence, three years apart.

To cover these costs, he resorted to compensating the victim. But the insurance policy made her ineligible and her claim was rejected. "Even though a person has an insurance policy, other expenses associated with the death could have helped the victim's compensation for the crime," he said.

Requests for compensation can be denied or closed for several reasons, the most common being "incomplete information," followed by "ineligible application" and "ineligible offense," as defined by the Office for Victims of Crime, which administers the grants Federal VOCA to the states. Each state has its own appeal process, but there are no current national figures on how many denied applicants are pursuing it.

Three years later, Jolly faced the unthinkable: her daughter Shalita was found in the street in the city of Pontiac with a bullet wound to the head. This time Jolly did not bother asking for compensation. "I kept all my receipts and everything, but I never followed," he said. "Why waste your time when I was first denied?" To pay for her daughter's funeral, she says her family depended on contributions from friends, co-workers and a GoFundMe account. Even then, it was still not enough to buy a tombstone.

Few state programs track victims of gun violence.

Jolly belongs to a group of mothers of homicide victims who spoke about their state's eligibility criteria, which they say are too strict and are applied capriciously. Others across the country have expressed similar complaints. An investigation published last year by the Dayton Daily News revealed that among the thousands of victims in Ohio were denied compensation annually, some were rejected because of criminal or drug history, even if none of them played a role in the crime that He left them in need of assistance. (Ohio is one of several states that restricts people with serious crimes from receiving compensation payments). In Pennsylvania, the victims' advocates claim that black families are being denied because of illegal activity in the records of their murdered children.

In 2016, approximately 1.4 million people over the age of 12 experienced at least one serious violent crime, defined as sexual assault, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, according to the Department of Justice. It is impossible to know how many of those victims could benefit from compensation. In the same year, a total of approximately 204,000 individuals who identified themselves as direct survivors of violent crimes sought compensation.

Three years ago, the Office for Victims of Crime began requiring states to report more detailed demographic information. The data that the office has collected reveal some patterns: applicants tend to be women, white and between the ages of 25 and 59 years. However, the office's reports do not provide the same details about the beneficiaries of the compensation, which means that it is not possible to identify them. Trends in approvals or denials among certain groups. Most victim compensation programs, like many US cities, do not distinguish victims of shooting from other types of victims of assault.

Exceptions include the Ohio Offender Compensation Program, which establishes homicide with firearms as a specific category, and the Louisiana Crime Victim Reparation Program, which identifies cases involving firearms. The statistics obtained by The Trace reveal that the compensation goes to a small part of the total number of shooting victims in Louisiana. In 2016, the compensation board ruled in 161 cases related to firearms throughout the state, of which 149 were approved. That year, more than 580 people were killed in New Orleans alone.

Misconceptions about funds

Approximately half of survivors of gun violence I spoke with hit the barriers before starting an application. Some described compensation to victims as a mythical benefit that they had heard about but had rarely seen work in real life. The loved ones of the homicide victims described being too sorry for the pain to go ahead with the process, or reluctant to appear as if they were begging for a brochure. A couple of shooting survivors said they were interested, but had no idea how to start the process.

Isiah Johnson was shot in Milwaukee twice in a year. He did not request compensation. "Both times nobody contacted me," he said. "Nobody said where or how to do it." Nicole Byrd, of Absecon, NJ, needed help with funeral expenses after her son was killed in 2010, but said a conversation in the prosecutor's office left her thinking that her state's compensation program does not "Help the families of the shooting victims." (He does.) Roy Brumfield, who was shot eight times in New Orleans on two separate occasions, did not believe the victim's compensation was available in his city. that in New Orleans, "he said. (The Louisiana program serves residents throughout the state.)

Perhaps the most fundamental flaw of compensation programs is that few survivors of crimes know they exist. "Because compensation to victims is not as well known as other forms of compensation (ie, workers' compensation), lack of awareness is often the main obstacle that victims and the survivors must overcome, "wrote Douglas Evans, a researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in a 2014 report. A study of California crime survivors conducted a year earlier showed that one in three was unaware of victim compensation.

Gaps persist when it comes to addressing the specific needs of victims of gun violence.

Victim compensation programs have long been linked to the criminal justice system. To qualify for compensation, victims must report the crime; They often also need to get a police report to include in their application. But only 60 percent of gun violence is reported and victims of gunfire for fear of reprisals may be reluctant to interact with the police. "When the only portal to compensation is the application of the law, and you are violent in communities where there is already a perception of abuse by the police, that leaves many victims without a way to get help," Stacey Wiggall said. , a clinical social worker and technical assistance administrator at the Trauma Recovery Center in San Francisco.

From the police side, law enforcement officials are required to notify victims about compensation in at least two-thirds of the states, but there is evidence that this does not happen consistently. The Alabama compensation program, for example, reported that "many police jurisdictions are still reluctant to inform victims of their constitutional rights to receive information on compensation for victims of crime."

Even when the information is provided, it may be lost so far. "Sometimes, in the whirlwind of the incident, our advocates are giving a lot of information and I can imagine that some families or individuals are simply not digesting that information," said Katherine Carter, a spokeswoman for the Essex County Prosecutor's Office in Newark. New York. Jersey.

The compensation managers recognize that there is a gap between the total number of victims and the people who apply. "We run a program that people generally do not know exists until they need to know it exists," said Robert Hamill, administrator of the Iowa Crime Victims Compensation Program. He said the responsibility to notify victims falls on defense organizations. , the application of the law and the prosecutors, and most of it corresponds to their own staff. "We have an obligation to make sure that people know we are here to help them," he said.

Walking through the bureaucracy with a broken jaw

Access to compensation requires that the applicant be an entrepreneur and be organized at a time when it can be difficult to simply get out of bed. Claudiare Motley of Charlotte, North Carolina, was shot during an attempted carjacking while visiting Milwaukee for her high school reunion in June 2014. The bullet opened a hole in her jaw. He learned about the compensation of a link in the hospital and sent his request about a month later. After his third surgery, his insurance company left him, leaving him really desperate for financial help. The Wisconsin compensation program told Motley that he was eligible, but warned him that he would have to wait to receive all of his medical bills before they could determine a payment.

"The bureaucracy is very dense and there are many emotional and financial stressors during that time that take away your attention," Motley, 46, said. "Sometimes they do not respond immediately, sometimes they are very short with you, it can be very frustrating."

Despite the frustrations, Motley was fortunate to have resources to help him persist. Six months after he was shot, he graduated from law school. He read the victim compensation statute and learned about the rights of victims in Wisconsin. Between the infections and the surgeries to rebuild his jaw, he juggled phone calls with the hospital, the compensation office, the insurance company and the creditors.

While I was waiting to hear about your claim, your case went from one person to another to another. Motley stayed on it, at one point driving to the compensation office in Madison to be able to verify his application in person.

 One of the invoices from the Motley hospital, for a total of $ 34,885.

One of the invoices from the Motley hospital, for a total of $ 34,885.

"I definitely feel like I had a clear advantage," Motley said, referring to his tenacity with the process. "It could have easily fallen through the cracks."

Approximately two and a half years after requesting compensation, the Wisconsin program paid its dentist, physician's office and hospital a total of $ 40,000 – the state's highest award. Motley says that money was both a "blessing" and a "fall in the bucket."

In early February, Motley had undergone 10 surgeries and procedures. He estimates that he still owes $ 130,000 in medical bills.

Making compensation available to more victims

In 2015, the International Association of Chiefs of Police launched a national project to train law enforcement on how to improve victims' access to the compensation. At the state level, Nevada passed a law to allow undocumented immigrants to receive compensation. In Massachusetts, a proposed measure would facilitate rules on whether funds can go to a victim or family members if the victim contributed to their own injuries.

The gaps persist when it comes to addressing the specific needs of victims of armed violence. Among the 11 compensation offices that The Trace attended, only the Iowa program responded that it was targeting the victims. The California program, which administers the country's oldest and largest fund, is committed to improving access for disadvantaged victims, including "communities affected by gang violence." The program also administers grants to support trauma recovery centers, which provide mental health treatment to victims. and practical assistance, including help to request compensation. Ohio recently followed the leadership of California and has seven trauma recovery centers under development.

"There is money that is just sitting there and is underused because people do not know it or can not access it," said Jennifer Alvidrez, program officer at the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities. , who evaluated the California victim's compensation program in the past. "It's a kind of truism to make that money more accessible to the people that it's really there for."

Are you a survivor of gun violence with a story to share about compensation for victims? E-mail me at

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