Amnesty International: Victim Compensation Programs Should be Improved

When someone is killed or injured by gun violence, a lot of healing has to occur. Physical injuries, sure. But psychological and emotional and family and community wounds, too.

“Some days are good. Some days are bad, but we go on,” a tearful Phyllis Scott said Thursday, gently encouraged by a crowd of residents and nonprofit workers dedicated to abating gun violence and its effects.

The group gathered at Morgan State University to discuss a new report from Amnesty International: “Scars of Survival: Gun Violence and Barriers to Reparation in the USA.”

The consensus in the room was that there are not enough resources for victims of gun violence in America – those who live or the families that have to carry on after a death.

That’s especially true in Baltimore, where there have been more than 300 homicides a year each year since 2015.

“I ain’t never been in the Army, but I’m a vet,” Scott said, filled with emotion. “Because it’s a war out there.”

She spoke with Amnesty International for the report in September, three weeks after her 23-year-old son was shot 23 times. He survived the shooting after multiple surgeries with permanent injuries.

At the time of the interview, Scott had been gathering receipts and other required documents to make a claim to Maryland’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. It was a difficult task as she provided primary care for her injured son, other children and grandchildren.

On Thursday, Scott said they ultimately were not approved for a claim.

Amnesty International says the crime victim compensation programs operated in the U.S. don’t do enough to help families in need, potentially sending those in grief into a spiral of self-medication and mental distress.

The role of reparations

Amnesty International has argued for years that gun violence in the United States amounts to a human rights crisis, with the government failing to protect the rights to life and security.

And as a human rights violation, victims are entitled to effective remedies and reparation according to international law, the organization says.

“High costs, cumbersome paperwork and inadequate crime victim compensation programs are all barriers to accessing proper care and support following the trauma of a shooting. The U.S. authorities need to get a grip on gun violence, and ensure survivors have the support necessary to address the harms they have suffered and to rebuild their lives,” said Sanhita Ambast, Amnesty International’s researcher on economic, social and cultural rights. “Given their failure to adequately address gun violence on a large scale, there’s even more of an impetus to provide assistance to survivors.”

Amnesty International said reparations that should be universally available include medical and psychological care, compensation for economic harms, and access to other services.

Across the United States, the number of victim compensation claims filed represents a small fraction of all victims of crimes. In 2017, there were 1,247,321 violent crimes reported in the U.S., but only 294,990 applications for compensation were filed. Determinations were made in 217,208 cases, with around 77 percent of people – 167,250 – found eligible for some compensation.

In 2017 when there were more than 700 firearm-related deaths in Maryland, there were 199 victim compensation applications where a firearm was used in the crime, and 54 applications were approved, according to Amnesty International’s report.

Gunshot survivors told Amnesty International that bureaucracy and paperwork were among the barriers they faced in filing claims, including corralling the required paperwork during a time of emotional distress and trauma.

In 2017, the most common reason for denying a victim compensation application across all states was incomplete information; about 24 percent of denials were for this reason.

How Maryland stacks up

Crime victim compensation programs are run by states, with the federal government reimbursing about 60 percent of total payments.

During the 2017 federal fiscal year, Maryland’s board paid out $2.8 million on a total of 677 claims for all crime types.

Among the states analyzed in the report – Maryland, Florida and Louisiana – Maryland laws generally provided more supports to crime victims, including dedicated transportation services for people with disabilities and a higher ceiling for payments.

Even so, no programs in the U.S. are designed to be comprehensive to provide full reparation and the fact that they work on the basis of reimbursement could end up being ineffective for people won can’t afford to pay up front, according to Amnesty International. Victim compensation boards are generally payers of last resort, providing funds only to victims who have exhausted all other options, including insurance.

On average in the United States, victims received around $1,466 in 2016-2017. That figure is higher in Maryland: $4,146.

But a study by Johns Hopkins University found that the average national charge for an emergency room visit for a gunshot wound was $5,254 and the average charge for those admitted to a hospital through an emergency room was $95,887.

The Maryland Criminal Injuries Compensation Board allows victims to claim up to $45,000, with caps on certain types of expenses including medical ($45,000), counseling ($5,000), lost wages and disability ($25,000), funeral ($5,000) crime scene cleanup ($250) and loss of support ($25,000).

In 2019, lawmakers passed a bill that will increase those line-item caps for counseling and burial expenses, as well as for emergency claims, beginning in 2020.

The bill from Del. Wanika B. Fisher (D-Prince George’s) and Sen. Christopher West (R-Baltimore County) – and a separate departmental measure – also provides for online filing of claims, which is unavailable now.

Recommendations for the future

One of the Amnesty International recommendations is to remove prohibitions from compensation for people who have been convicted of a felony in the past. Unlike some other states, Maryland doesn’t automatically disqualify someone from benefiting from the fund if they have a criminal history, but the state can restrict payments if there is substantial evidence they caused, provoked, failed to avoid or contributed to the crime that caused their injury.

Pauline Mandel of the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center told Amnesty International that the most common reason she sees for denied claims is that the board finds a gunshot victim was not an innocent bystander or was engaged in criminal activity. For example, Mandel said some victims might have a small amount of marijuana in their pocket, rendering them disqualified regardless of whether the marijuana was linked to the shooting.

Among other remedies, the report suggested more outreach to increase awareness of the board, as well as more resources to help victims make claims.

Walker Gladden, a Baltimore resident who was interviewed by Amnesty International, said after the death of his son, he didn’t know about the victim compensation board and wasn’t told about it.

“I was not offered any help. I was not offered any counselling. I was not offered anything for my other children,” he said. “…There is no one to help people maneuver through the system. No one to educate people about the process. [In hospitals] the attitude seems to be if you don’t ask, we won’t tell. But how can you ask for something that you don’t know?”

In 2017, 13 states saw an increase in the number of applications for victim compensation, including Maryland. In a response to Amnesty International, the board attributed the increase to greater outreach efforts.

Sharon McMahan said she hopes to see formal and informal supports increase for communities dealing with gun violence. After her son, Juan, died from gun violence at age 17, she struggled to get up for work each day. Now, she volunteers to give advice to other mothers experiencing trauma and is starting up her own organization called A Mother’s Love Never Dies.

McMahan said after receiving support at Roberta’s House, she can now look back on her son’s memory with joy, not grief. She’s holding a freedom walk and cookout at Lake Montebello on Sunday to memorialize the life of her son and others lost to gun violence.

“The whole families suffer. We need to do something about it,” she said. “It’s very traumatizing.”

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines most recently worked for Bethesda Beat covering Montgomery County. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at the Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.

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