Allocation of funds to ease crime victims’ trauma lack full disclosure 

The aftermath

click to enlarge The victim fund received 85 claims from the 2015 shooting. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • The victim fund received 85 claims from the 2015 shooting.
It’s 3:30 p.m. on a Wednesday and a small group of people have gathered in a conference room of the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

They’re here to decide if victims of violent crimes will receive funds to get help like counseling, or dental work to fix teeth damaged in an assault, or chiropractic care, or family counseling sessions in child abuse cases, or compensation for lost wages linked to the crime.

The board members, who were appointed by District Attorney Dan May, have clearly done their homework. Dentist Richard Carter and psychotherapist Janet Kerr (a third board member, physician Scott Ross, was absent) have arrived at the Sept. 12 meeting having studied more than 200 claims that form a 6-inch stack of applications now before them, awaiting a decision.

As Carter notes, “What this does is give you a clue that the world is not all happy people.”

One victim seeks grief counseling following a homicide. Another asks for lost wages. One by one, Carter and Kerr say “no” or (mostly) “yes” to the claims, which will give the victims a portion of the roughly $15 million dispensed annually across the state to crime victims. According to state reports from 2012 to 2016, the most recent available that’s broken down by district, the 4th Judicial District’s fund paid out roughly $6.1 million for 3,660 claims.

State law requires payment and victim information to be kept confidential, meaning there’s no official accounting of how, specifically, those millions are spent. Funding comes from fees assessed in criminal cases: $163 in felony cases, $78 in misdemeanor cases, $46 for class 1 misdemeanor traffic offenses, and $33 for a class 2 misdemeanor traffic offenses.

The board meeting is public, as board members weigh in on each request without identifying victims or the crimes at issue. This reporter was thus watching the meeting while following along on (and jotting down notes on) an agenda, when, in a startling move, a Victim Fund staffer snatched an agenda out of my hands.

Deputy District Attorney Donna Billek returned it later, with every printed line blacked out in marker, including the meeting date. Only my notes remained.

Asked why, Billek told me, “You can request the document pursuant to statute.”

That’s over the line, says First Amendment attorney and President of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition Steve Zansberg of Denver, who reviewed the document in question.

“By seizing a reporter’s work product, and then returning it with information destroyed or redacted from a public record, the Assistant District Attorney [Billek] appears to have violated the Federal Privacy Protection Act (42 U.S.C. § 2000aa(b)) which provides a private right of action against government officials who confiscate [a] reporter’s work product,” Zansberg says via email. He adds there’s “no legitimate grounds” for Billek’s action, considering the fund had previously provided numerous agendas to the reporter.

May called Billek’s action “a mistake” triggered by a desire to be “overly cautious” in protecting victim information and a symptom of the board being unaccustomed to outside scrutiny. Board members and their staff declined to comment on the fund’s operations.

But Patricia Billinger, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Safety, which oversees the victim program, notes in an email that strict confidentiality stems from the fact that “victims are the heart and absolute focus” of the program.
click to enlarge An entire agenda was blacked out. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • An entire agenda was blacked out.

“Colorado’s elected leaders have taken a thoughtful, victim-centered approach to the laws that govern these funds, establishing accountability while ensuring that victims’ needs always come first,” Billinger says, adding that staff are diligent in protecting victims’ rights, safety and privacy.

While the way the government is spending the funds isn’t public, the guidelines it follows in making awards are. No victim can be awarded more than $30,000 for costs not covered by insurance or some other resource. The cap is $2,000 in emergencies. Crimes for which compensation is paid include assault, sexual assault, homicide, child abuse, drunk driving, stalking, robbery, terrorism, kidnapping, arson and some vehicular crimes. Eligible expenses include medical and mental health costs, lost wages, loss of support to dependents, residential property damage to exterior windows, locks and doors, and up to $9,000 in funeral expenses.

There’s been no public allegation of abuse of the fund in Colorado — little wonder given that the spending isn’t publicly disclosed. But an analysis nationwide by The Marshall Project and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, in conjunction with the USA TODAY Network, found that seven states bar those with unrelated criminal records from receiving victim compensation, which has the broader effect of falling hardest on black victims and their families.

Colorado’s program doesn’t do that, but it does exclude those who committed a “wrongful act” or provoked the crime for which they’re seeking compensation, as well as those who don’t cooperate with law enforcement.

The latter point doesn’t sit well with state Rep. Pete Lee, an ardent restorative justice advocate. “I don’t mean to be contrary,” Lee says, “but suppose I’m in a community where I fear some sort of retaliation if I engage in cooperation and name names, and I don’t want to do that. That doesn’t diminish my injury. Should it disqualify someone from compensation?”

Because that exclusion is part of the law, only the Legislature could change it. But May notes that provision can be, and has been at times, waived by the Victim Compensation Board “if good cause is shown.” Another rule that also can be waived is the mandate that victims report the crime within 72 hours. A sexual assault on a child is an example of a situation in which it might be appropriate to waive the rules, May says.

Lee also wonders if it’s possible to achieve more transparency while also protecting victims, to which May says the local program is considered “the gold standard” by state officials who audit the fund biennially. May adds that court personnel, not victim fund employees, actually issue checks to victims or their providers, serving as a check on the system.

For now, only general information is available, and what gets released appears to vary from district to district.

The Indy asked the 4th Judicial District’s Victim Compensation Fund, which covers El Paso and Teller counties, for information on claims stemming from two high-profile incidents: The Nov. 27, 2015, Planned Parenthood shooting that killed three people, including Garrett Swasey, 44, a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs campus police officer, and wounded nine, five of whom were law enforcement officers; and the Feb. 5 shooting that killed Deputy Micah Flick, 34, along with the suspect, wounded three officers and paralyzed innocent bystander Thomas Villanueva, 29, from the chest down.

Victim fund administrator Morgan Devendorf responded, “No such document exists to show how much compensation was distributed for victims.”

Oddly, however, the board’s meeting minutes report that 85 claims were submitted due to the “Black Friday [Planned Parenthood] shooting.” Dollar figures weren’t reported, and meeting minutes since February don’t contain any reference to the Feb. 5 shooting.

In contrast, the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties, tells the Indy that it received 630 applications from victims and their families in the July 20, 2012, shooting rampage at an Aurora theater, at which James Holmes killed 12 and wounded 70. Payments totaled $1,017,211.

Where the money goes

The Office of Justice Programs reports that Colorado paid $15.5 million in the year ending Sept. 30, 2017, the most recent data available, on claims involving 9,615 victims; about 1,256 claims were denied. In addition:
  • $7.24 million was paid to 5,320 victims of assault, 60 percent of whom were victims of domestic or family violence.
  • $1.18 million was paid to 1,861 victims of child sexual abuse, 27 percent of whom were victims of domestic or family violence.
  • $2.3 million was paid to 1,099 victims linked to homicides — about 10 percent of which stemmed from domestic or family violence.
  • $2.9 million was paid for mental health therapy, and $1.17 million for medical treatment.
  • 53 percent of victims who received help were white; 30 percent were Hispanic or Latino; and black and African-American victims comprised 5 percent. Most claims, 59 percent, came from women.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story referred to Planned Parenthood as "Planning Parenthood." We regret the error.


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