Vanessa Martinez was finishing preparations for her daughter’s second birthday in September 2021 when her ex-boyfriend broke into her Mesa, Arizona, condo and shot her in the head as she frantically tried to shield their three young children.
Doctors had to remove a third of her skull, but Martinez survived.
She left the hospital facing a fight for custody of her kids, who’d been placed in state care after the attack. She needed a new place to live after much of the house was damaged in a standoff between police and her shooter. Her 4-year-old son needed trauma counseling.
Arizona has a state safety net — local victim compensation programs — for victims of violent attacks like Martinez. But she was denied help because she was behind on about $900 in court fines from unrelated incidents, including one dating back nearly a decade. Program officials told Martinez she could reapply if she got current with a payment plan, but every dollar she made was needed for things like finding a place to live, work scrubs for her home-care job, after-school day care — and the list grows.
Across the country, victims like Martinez are using their stories to advocate for changes to state victim compensation programs, where thousands of crime survivors turn for help with medical bills, relocation, funerals or other expenses. The programs disburse millions of dollars each year, but The Associated Press found racial inequities and other barriers in how claims are denied in many states.
Crime survivors have organized rallies, testified at legislatures and met with dozens of lawmakers — with much success.
Legislatures in more than half of U.S. states have passed measures to improve their programs in recent years. The changes vary widely: A victim’s criminal history is no longer an automatic disqualifier in Illinois. The time limit to apply for help was increased from three to seven years in California. In Michigan, the cap on aid will nearly double to $45,000 this year and more people like caretakers of victims will be eligible for survivor benefits.
States have cut back on their denials to families based on the behavior of homicide victims and loosened requirements that crime victims must have cooperated with or reported the crime to police.
In Ohio, denials are no longer automatic for crime victims who have felony convictions or for surviving family if a murder victim had drugs in their system. Those reasons were used to deny help for a handful of victims in the 2019 mass shooting at a Dayton bar where nine people were killed and 17 others were wounded.
Dion Green was at the bar that night with his father, Derrick Fudge, who was killed. Green helped fight for the changes to Ohio’s program after being denied help because his father had an almost 10-year-old felony conviction.
“I told them that I miss my father everyday, but the survivors, the people left here, are the ones still moving through their pain,” Green said.
Changes have incrementally rolled through states over decades as more is learned about victimization. Mental health treatment wasn’t a commonly covered expense when the programs started in the 1960s and 1970s, but now is widely covered. Pennsylvania passed a law to allow eligible victims access to counseling whether or not the program determined the victim contributed to their own victimization.
Sometimes, however, change runs up against institutional inertia.
Nevada doesn’t require sexual assault victims to go to police as long as they report the crime to nurses or other health professionals. But a 2021 federal audit found 175 claims from those victims had been denied over a five-year period because of missing or incomplete police reports.
Nevada retrained staff after the audit, and revised the denials notifications sent to victims. Program officials confirmed that as of early 2023, none of those denied claims had been reopened. They declined an interview request from the AP.
“The consensus has been that the potential re-traumatization to victims of sexual assault is too great of a risk in contacting victims regarding their claims,” program spokeswoman, Karla Delgado wrote in an emailed response.
In Ohio, Green recently helped a woman who had lost her children’s father to gun violence start the compensation process by contacting a county representative. The woman was initially turned away because the victim had a previous felony record. Green helped her inform the official of the 2021 law change.
“It’s the awareness part. People inside and outside the program need to know,” Green said.
Christelle Perez sought an immediate attitude shift among staff when she took over as chief of the Illinois Crime Victims Compensation Bureau in May 2021. She wanted to stop decades of autopilot denials from holding up recently passed reforms.
“There was this culture of, ‘How can we deny a claim?’ because that’s what the staff were instructed to do,” Perez said. “I met with the staff and I told them that we are a service organization and it is our job to serve.”
A similar mission realignment happened when New York’s program changed from a five-member board that made inconsistent and sometimes subjective decisions to a division where staff received uniform training on how to decide claims. Elizabeth Cronin took over as executive director of the division in 2013 — a few years after the shift — and has pushed to make sure the program operates equitably.
“My top priority was to identify marginalized communities, underserved communities and spend more time out in the community to find out what we aren’t seeing and why we aren’t seeing it,” Cronin said.
Lenore Anderson, president and co-founder of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, which organizes victims to advocate for criminal justice reforms, has pushed program administrators for years to shift their focus from eligibility requirements to victim needs.
“It feels so obvious that the very least we can do when someone is hurt by crime and violence is ask, ‘What do you need?’ And the fact that that is completely counter to how these bureaucratic systems operate is shocking,” she said.
Anderson said she’s seen signs of change at the federal level, where the Justice Department’s U.S. Office for Victims of Crime provides state programs with matching dollars that are tied to some regulations and a set of suggested guidelines. In a 2021 memo to state programs, the office encouraged states to add exceptions to police cooperation requirements.
Some victims advocates want the federal office to mandate changes to all programs as a condition for receiving federal funds to address the piecemeal map of state programs that dole out inconsistent decisions.
The office is in the process of overhauling compensation guidelines for the first time since 2001, with an “emphasis on equity and addressing programmatic barriers,” according to an emailed statement from the department. But it’s unclear how much of that new guidance will be mandatory. Green, part of an advocates committee giving input on those changes, said he’s pushed the agency not only to take down existing barriers but mandate that states increase public awareness of their compensation programs.
At the state level, hundreds of advocacy organizations are working for reforms, and with more than 100,000 members, Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice is one of the largest. Bernice “Tammi” Ringo is one of those members.
After a lifetime living around Detroit, Ringo had plans to move to Alabama with her 23-year-old son Natalian to get him away from the crime she had feared most of his life. Those plans were shattered in 2019, when Natalian was fatally shot while sitting in his parked car in an enclave of Detroit.
Ringo applied for funeral and counseling aid. She was denied because the program said she could rely on life insurance instead. She appealed, and while the program overturned its initial decision, it denied her again, saying her son had committed misconduct related to his own murder. The state commission provided no details, Ringo said, and Highland Park police were little help.
Overwhelmed with grief, Ringo, 64, later spoke before the Michigan Legislature about the trauma of being told her son had somehow caused his murder.
“They put me through more hell,” she said of the program denial. “I’m heavily involved because I couldn’t leave and go to Alabama and take my son with me and… just start a new life.”
After she and other victims testified, Michigan lawmakers passed legislation, set to go into effect in August, that makes numerous changes, including increasing money available to victims, eliminating police reporting deadlines and increasing eligibility.
Data are not available for the handful of states that passed recent sweeping reforms. But New Jersey, which overhauled its program rules in 2020, saw an immediate change.
In 2018 and 2019, Black victims accounted for about 44% of applications but received nearly 60% of the denials, according to data obtained by the AP. After the overhaul, that disparity dwindled, and by 2021 it had disappeared.
Martinez hopes that speaking at rallies supporting a bill that would fund a pilot trauma-recovery center in Arizona will lead to more people getting help. The model moves money to victims faster and has fewer restrictions, like those that disqualified Martinez.
“I didn’t really get any time to heal even emotionally from what happened,” Martinez said. “But I really feel like this is my life’s mission to get this changed.”
Catalini reported from Trenton, New Jersey and Lauer reported from Philadelphia.
This is the second in an occasional Associated Press series examining crime victim compensation programs. Send confidential tips to ap.org/tips. The Associated Press receives support from the Public Welfare Foundation for reporting focused on criminal justice. The AP is solely responsible for all content.