The California Victim Compensation Board (CalVCB) estimates that every year, approximately 100 crime survivors lose out on a combined $84,000 in trauma recovery assistance because they have filed late claims. That number may not seem like much in light of California’s $215 billion budget, but a thousand dollars, or even a few hundred dollars, can make a huge difference to help individuals and families recover from the trauma of a violent crime.
The number doesn’t include the crime survivors who don’t file claims at all after realizing that they’ve missed California’s three-year deadline–or because they don’t know they’re eligible–to seek support from the state’s victim fund.
A bill currently awaiting a hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, SB 375, would extend the state’s three-year deadline for crime victims to apply for assistance to 10 years.
For those unfamiliar, the CA Victim Compensation Board covers expenses that arise in the wake of a crime, including medical treatment, mental health counseling, burial expenses, and income loss.
All too often, however, victims miss out on much-needed help because they are unaware that they can apply for assistance in the first place.
A 2013 survey by Californians for Safety and Justice, revealed that nearly one out of every three victims of crime were unaware that they were eligible for compensation, but would have been interested in the program had they known.
Young people of color were the least likely to know about financial assistance offered through the compensation fund, according to the survey. And nearly half of those victims surveyed said that applying for the financial help was difficult.
A 2019 report, also from Californians for Safety and Justice, found that fewer than one in five crime survivors in California received any aid from the program.
“Even with exceptions for late applications, many victims may see the time limit as a barrier, and not apply for compensation when they learn about the program or when they need it,” according to Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), the author of SB 375.
“Unfortunately, no data exists showing how many victims of crime have not applied for compensation” believing they have “missed the window of time to apply,” she said.
Needing “someone in your corner”
Terrance Stewart, California Director for the Alliance for Safety and Justice’s #TimeDone campaign, told WitnessLA that he was one of those survivors who was left unaware of, and thus, did not access, victim compensation.
When Stewart was a young boy, his uncle was murdered. At that time, the victim compensation fund paid to relocate his family from Pasadena to Alhambra.
When Stewart himself was shot more than two decades ago, at age 21, the only time he remembers that someone might have spoken with him about services available to crime victims was while he was in the hospital on heavy pain killers.
“They had me on this morphine drip,” Stewart said. Medical staff were constantly coming in and out of his room, he was having nightmares, throwing up from the morphine, and couldn’t understand what was going on around him.
Looking back at those traumatic first days, Stewart remembers that many of the people who intereacted with him during his hospital stay–from doctors, nurses, and counselors, to police, and others–made Stewart feel as if he had been responsible for the crime against him, he said.
They “treated you like you deserved what you got,” like you were “a scumbag,” rather than a victim.
Before he was shot, Stewart was attending college. Now a community advocate, husband, and father, with a master’s degree from UC Riverside, Stewart said his education and life were derailed by the many aftereffects of the shooting.
He was left suffering from depression, without the ability to use his dominant right arm and hand, a disability that meant he couldn’t work to support himself for two years. Later, Stewart was incarcerated for a non-violent drug crime.
Not until it was too late to take action did Stewart know that he could have applied for state assistance. “Unless you’ve got somebody in your corner who knows something about [the state victim fund], you probably ain’t gonna know.”
Victims and trauma
Tinisch Hollins, California State Director at Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, agrees.
“It’s important to note that the experiences of people like Terrance–black and brown folks who come from neighborhoods that are heavily impacted by violence and crime–don’t get the empathy,” said Hollins, who is one of the bill’s sponsors.
Too often, according to Hollins and others, the message these victims get from officials is some variation on the theme of “‘What did you do to perpetuate your own victimization?'”
“Many crime survivors who have never committed a crime receive the same treatment that Terrance received simply because they are black or brown and came from a poor community,” said Hollins.
At the same time, survivors who are dealing with the effects of severe trauma are often not ready to seek financial help, according to Hollins.
SB 375, however, would prioritize “the needs of crime survivors by making the system more responsive and trauma-informed, recognizing that people often aren’t ready to apply for victim compensation in the immediate aftermath of an incident,” Hollins said.
In this way, she explained, the proposed legislation is a sort of backdoor way “to really address trauma in our communities.”
Hollins has a point. Research shows that traumatic experiences and toxic stress are connected to a host of life-altering problems, including chronic illness, mental illness, cancer, shorter lifespans, alcoholism and drug use, lower academic achievement, and lost time from work.
“Trauma,” Hollins added, is also “a huge driver of crime.” Thus, supporting victims will help to reduce incarceration and recidivism and positively impact public safety overall. Opening “pathways to healing and recovery for those most harmed is key to stopping the cycle of unaddressed trauma that undermines safety and perpetuates harm” in California and across the nation, Hollins said.
While the effects of trauma can prohibit survivors from accessing support, it is also not uncommon for survivors to receive incomplete information or to be misinformed regarding what compensation might be available, Hollins told WLA.
Interestingly, while SB 375 would, in its current form with amendments, give California one of the longest windows to apply for aid, the original version of the bill sought to abolish the deadline altogether.
California is one of 11 states with the 3-year time limit. Some states, like Kentucky (5 years) have longer limits. Some have limits as short as six months.
Just three states–Ohio, Utah, and Vermont–have no time limits for victims to access compensation.
Passing SB 375 would set a precedent for other states with shorter deadlines to better serve crime survivors, Hollins said.
The $$ issue
There are fiscal concerns for the bill, which will be heard in the Assembly Appropriations Committee in mid-August when the state legislature comes back from its summer recess.
(CalVCB money comes from federal funds, restitution, and criminal justice system fines. A steady depletion of the state restitution fund means that the CalVCB is facing insolvency.)
The bill is estimated to come with an initial annual cost that “may reach into the low hundreds of thousands of dollars” due to an influx of applications that would be too late under the 3-year deadline, but qualify under the 10-year deadline.
Yet, the benefits greatly outweigh the cost, according to Hollins.
“The health and safety of our communities depend on crime victims getting the support they need to recover,” she said. “Ensuring that there are pathways to healing and recovery for those most harmed is key to stopping the cycle of unaddressed trauma that undermines safety and perpetuates” additional harm.