Strict rules in Ohio program deny payouts to thousands of victims

1:06 p.m Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017 Politics

An Ohio program that compensates crime victims rejects thousands of applicants each year — including victims of rape and assault and the families of those murdered — because of strict rules that disqualify people for reasons that include criminal or drug histories.

Advocates say the state goes too far toward helping only victims it deems worthy.

The Ohio Victims Compensation Fund program, funded mostly by court fees and administered by the Attorney General’s office, has been paying out less each year going back a decade even as the number of claims spiked, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.

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In one case examined by the newspaper, a 17-year-old who was abducted and allegedly sexually assaulted before being rescued from a motel in Moraine was denied compensation after drugs were found in her system. It didn’t matter that her family said she was fed the drugs by her abductors, who intended to force her into sex trafficking.

“The victim’s program they have in place is not doing what it’s intended to do,” said the girl’s mother, who is being identified only as Angela to hide the identity of her daughter. “It’s not helping the victims. It’s not helping the families.”

Program rules disqualify people with drugs in their system, even if the drugs had nothing to do with the crime or were taken days prior.

The program also disqualifies people believed to have committed certain felony crimes in the previous 10 years, regardless of whether they were charged or acquitted. 

RELATED: Pike County victim not eligible for state funds because of drugs

State Rep. Bill Seitz, a Republican and Cincinnati defense attorney, said the state shouldn’t be rejecting applications “because of some unproven allegation of prior criminal activity. I think that’s over-broad,” he said. “I think that’s clearly over-broad.”

“We’ve gone out of our way to recognize that oftentimes people who are sexually trafficked have been forced into a life of criminal acts and we don’t want to hold that against them,” Seitz said of the program’s limitations.

Staff Writer
State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Ciincinnati.

The program has been around for decades and is funded through drivers license reinstatement fees and court costs paid by people accused of crimes. Last year, the fund collected $16.6 million in revenue and ended the year with a balance of $17.3 million after paying out $6.8 million in victim compensation payments and spending $5.9 million on administrative costs, mostly for staff salaries. The office also used the fund to cover the cost of $3 million in rape kits.

Elizabeth Well, legal director of the Ohio Crime Victim Justice Center, said the program’s restrictions can undermine one of its goals, which is to encourage victims to report crimes.

“Obviously we know we are in an opioid epidemic in Ohio, which has been progressively getting worse and worse and there are going to be more victims because (addicts) are the most vulnerable,” she said.

‘If they’re eligible, it’s paid’

Matthew Kanai, chief of the AG’s crime victims service division, said his office has little discretion in awarding assistance and is guided by the eligibility rules laid out in the law.

“If they’re eligible, it’s paid,” he said. “If they’re not eligible, it isn’t.”

The $6.8 million in aid distributed in 2016 was down from $7.4 million in 2015, and has steadily dropped since 2007, when $14.4 million in payments were made.

Last year, new and supplemental claims rose 20 percent — from 4,616 to 5,551 — while the number of claims receiving payouts decreased from 2,948 to 2,893.

Kanai said his office doesn’t know why there’s been a decline in payouts. “We are actively working on ways to meet more people, make the process simpler, and get more victims compensation,” he said.

Columbus attorney Michael Falleur lauded the Ohio program, which he said is one of the nation’s best. Applicants whose claims are denied by the Attorney General can appeal to the Ohio Court of Claims, he said, which historically has taken a looser interpretation of the statutes.

But Falleur said too many victims are denied compensation because of trace amounts of drugs or mere suspicion of prior criminal activity. Ohio’s prohibition against paying family members of people accused of — but not convicted of — felonies stems back to Cleveland gangster John Nardi, Falleur said. When Nardi was killed in a car bomb in 1977, he had been charged with multiple felonies but not convicted, meaning his family would be eligible for compensation.

Since then the Ohio General Assembly has made several changes to widen eligibility. The most recent change, which took effect this year, eliminated a two-year statute of limitations for filing claims.

Victim advocates applaud the change because they say it gives victims — including women in abusive relationships — more time to report the crime and seek compensation.

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Audrey Starr, spokeswoman for the YWCA Dayton, which treats battered women, said most of the women they serve don’t qualify for compensation because they’re not ready or willing to turn in their spouse or partner.

Only 25 percent of all physical assaults and 20 percent of all rapes perpetrated against females by their partners are reported to the police, she said.

Dayton attorney Beth Kolotkin, who specializes in victims compensation claims, said the program is not promoted as well as it once was, and argues that applicants are often not told the state will pay for an attorney at no charge to help them apply.

“The chilling factor I think is a lack of awareness,” she said.

‘It was amazing that I lived’

Paula Humphrey, a 70-year-old Dayton woman who was assaulted last year by a juvenile who broke into her home, was initially denied compensation because she lacked the proper paperwork.

Although she filed an appeal and won, Humphrey said of the process: “I didn’t expect it to be so difficult.”

“It wasn’t the dollar amount, it was just the compassion that yes I was injured, not just physically, but emotionally, economically, physically, spiritually — it was a real blow to me,” she said. “I thought the victims compensation program was a way to affirm to people (that) this was an injustice.”

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In her appeal, Humphrey described the brutal attack, which left her with a concussion and broken ribs.

“The juvenile who attacked me choked me, and put his shirt over my head, and tried to choke me to unconscious,” she wrote. “I fought with all my might, which provoked him even more, and he hit me in my face and head at least eight times. Five times during the attack, he verbalized intentions to kill me. At my age, it was amazing that I lived through this attack, and I feel that had I not been the strong person I am, I would not have survived.”

Her assailant, who was 16 at the time, was convicted of aggravated burglary and felonious assault and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Staff Writer
Paula Humphrey displays some of the denial letters she received from the Ohio Victims of Crime Compensation Program after she was brutally assaulted in her Dayton home. Humphrey says she faced insurmountable bureaucracy in the program until she learned she could get an attorney at no charge.

Humphrey hired Kolotkin and she ultimately received $408, which reimbursed her for her mileage to and from the hospital and covered her medical deductibles. She was not compensated for the glasses she had to buy to replace the ones broken during the attack.

Victims are reimbursed for out-of-pocket costs, including hospital charges and — for families of murdered victims — funeral and burial expenses. The program does not pay for pain and suffering or lost property.

Last year, the average reimbursement was $2,369. Payouts totaled $337,698 in Montgomery County, $82,101 in Butler County, $63,935 in Miami County, $53,149 in Greene County and $38,804 in Clark County.

Kanai said AG’s office is not looking for reasons to deny claims.

“We try to encourage everybody who has been a victim to apply and allow us to work out the eligibility later,” he said.

‘I think she was about to be trafficked’

To see what criteria is used to reject applications, the newspaper used used Ohio public records laws to obtain “Reconsideration Reports” filed with the Attorney General’s office when someone appeals a denial of their claim.

The April 2016 case involving Angela’s 17-year-old daughter stood out.

Angela said her daughter has developmental issues that leave her with the maturity and decision-making skills of a 10-year-old. Although her daughter told Angela she was meeting a friend at a gas station, she never met the friend. Instead, a man she didn’t know and his father stopped and told her to get into their car, Angela said.

“Somebody says to do it and she does it because she says she’s too afraid not to do it,” Angela said of her daughter’s mental state.

The men took the girl back to their house, where they gave her alcohol, methamphetamine and cocaine and the younger man allegedly sexually assaulted her, according to Angela. Then they took her to a motel in Moraine where she was forced to have sex with a third man, the mother said.

“I think she was about to be trafficked,” Angela said. “I think she was about to disappear permanently.”

But the girl got in touch with her sister, who found the motel. Angela said the men fled when the sister arrived, and then the girls called police. She was transported to the hospital for a rape kit and that’s when the drugs were found in her system.

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“The drugs in her system were because of the crime,” Angela said. “They were forcing that on her.”

Police identified the younger man and issued a warrant for his arrest that was served in Shelby County. He was accused of felony rape by use of intoxicants and corrupting another with drugs, but a grand jury declined to indict him, according to court records.

The girl has since undergone counseling, but is not eligible for compensation from the state because she admitted to using the drugs, according to the letter denying Angela’s request for reconsideration.

“The law states that if a victim was using or in possession of a felony drug on or in their person at the time of the crime giving rise to a claim for compensation, such felonious conduct shall result in the denial of a claim,” the letter says.

Kanai said there is an exception to the rule if victims can show they were forced to take drugs or took them involuntarily.

Angela wrote in her reconsideration appeal that her daughter “was given alcohol, cocaine and meth by her abductor to subdue her and keep her compliant. That’s why she had them in her system.”

The mother of a 17-year-old girl says her daughter was abducted, sexually assaulted and taken to this motel to likely be handed off for sex trafficking. The state denied victims compensation to the girl, though, because she had cocaine in her system.

But the AG’s office responded saying she “voluntarily used cocaine, the use or possession of which is felonious.”

Angela said she gave up at that point, despite lost income from missing work and other hardships. She didn’t know she could get a free attorney.

Well, whose agency works on behalf of crime victims throughout the state, expressed shock at the outcome of Angela’s case.

Drugs are often used by the perpetrators of human trafficking to control the women, she said, and holding that against the victim is removing an incentive for them to report the crime.

“My opinion is because (human trafficking) is happening in our state and across the country I would think at some point they would have to take a look at that and change the law,” she said.

Falleur says he routinely sees victims of assault who are denied compensation because they have drugs in their system, and it doesn’t matter if the drugs are a factor in the crime.

“That dirty tox screen is going to disqualify them even if it had nothing to do with their victimization,” he said. “They ended that 30-minute high, yet they’re found to be in possession of drugs a week later.”

In a 2011 case Falleur pushed through the Ohio Court of Claims, a Columbus woman was killed by her ex-boyfriend who then committed suicide. Her autopsy found trace amounts of cocaine, meaning she had used the drug possibly days before she was murdered, according to Falleur.

A judge denied the claim saying the law was clear that even trace amounts of cocaine was evidence of felony conduct, meaning her children couldn’t get help with her burial, Falleur said.

“I don’t think that’s in the directive of the program,” he said.

‘This awful category’

Kanai said judicial precedent typically guides the state in determining whether to disqualify someone.

“The courts have found being involved in a drug deal is an inherently dangerous activity,” he said.

The mother of Antoine Jones of Kettering says the state’s compensation rules don’t take into account that the person who dies isn’t the only victim of a crime.

Jones, 16, was shot dead in a shootout that stemmed from an apparent robbery last year. The bodies of Jones and Fausto Sosa, 20, of Trotwood were found in Jones’ car, along with a gun and more than a pound of marijuana in the trunk.

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Victims compensation was denied to Jones’ family because he appeared to be involved in selling drugs when he died, according to the records.

Carolyn Williams, his mother, said people in her situation must deal with their grief, often miss work and have to pay thousands of dollars to bury their loved ones.

“There’s nothing available for people who fall into this awful category,” she said.

No innocent victims: Carolyn Williams

“I wasn’t aware of my son’s activities until he died,” Williams said. “It’s just another slap in the face from the state of Ohio and their lack of compassion for victims of crime regardless of how a crime happened. We are the victims. My son was a victim who died for a senseless reason. He wasn’t doing the best thing at the time that it happened, but it definitely wasn’t worth someone taking his life.”

‘They need help’

The denial letters obtained by the newspaper often expressed regret that the state could not pay the claim.

“I don’t think any person with a heart would say people in these situations are not victims,” said Dan Tierney, spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. “We have a program here that was established by the legislature, and (the law determines) whether these people are eligible for compensation.”

Despite some of the problems, Kolotkin credits Ohio officials for creating the program, expanding it in recent years, and offering free legal assistance for applicants.

Financial hardship makes recovery that much more difficult for victims, she and others said.

“It (the program) really does help provide for innocent victims of violent crime,” she said. “The things that happen shouldn’t define them. The need to be able to move forward and they need help moving forward.”