'A gift from heaven': NC pays millions to help crime victims
Posted April 16, 2014
Updated April 17, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — When Dick Adams' son was murdered two days before Christmas 1982, the emotional burden was accompanied by a financial one – the unanticipated funeral expenses for a 21-year-old. In the nearly 32 years since his son's murder, Adams has worked to help other crime victims and their families get millions of dollars from the state to help with funeral expenses, medical bills, lost wages and counseling.
The North Carolina Crime Victims Compensation program, which state lawmakers created in the 1980s at Adams' urging, gives victims up to $30,000 for medical bills and other expenses and gives victims' family members up to $5,000 for funeral expenses. Victims of assault, sexual abuse, domestic violence, drunken driving, homicide, pedestrian hit-and-run and rape can apply to get financial help.
Since the program's inception, the state has paid more than $130 million to help nearly 25,000 victims of crime in North Carolina. State appropriations and a 60 percent federal funding match help pay for the program, which received about $11.4 million last year.
Getting the word out to victims that the program exists and making sure those who do get money are truly innocent victims has proven challenging, according to Adams, who has served as chairman of North Carolina's Crime Victims Compensation Commission since 1987. He says there are victims and family members who "have never been told" about the program.
Dick Adams, chairman of the N.C. Crime Victims Compensation Commission
Adams, along with six other appointed commission members, meet four times a year in Raleigh to review victims' claims that exceed $12,500 to decide if they should receive money. Smaller claims are decided by the director of the victims compensation program. Those who are denied can appeal the decision.
"(In) the original legislation, the word 'innocent' was very prominent in the statute," Adams said. "Now, that's been diluted to where we're paying a lot of people now that are not innocent victims of crime."
By law, victims and their families can be denied money for eight different reasons, including if the victim was injured while participating in a crime or if the victim was convicted of a serious felony within three years of his or her injury.
"It's been watered down to where, if you're injured and have a quantity of cocaine in your pocket or a certain level or amount of the wacky weed on your person, that precludes you," Adams said. "But now, if you're stoned out of your brain or you can't walk or talk because you've ingested cocaine, that's OK."
Commission members debate nuances like these at their meetings, sometimes delaying votes until they can get more information about cases. At their last meeting in March, they debated whether "a minute amount of marijuana" should be overlooked. In another case, they struggled with whether to compensate a father who was "not cooperative enough" in helping prosecute his son who had beaten him with a baseball bat.
"We strive hard to relieve the stress and strain on innocent victims in North Carolina," Adams said. "If we're going to err, we err on behalf of the innocent victim of crime. We have to add just a small amount of common sense."
Mother: 'I thought he'd be turned down'
Freida MacDonald wasn't sure if she should apply for compensation. Losing her 24-year-old son was difficult enough. She didn't want the added stress of possibly being denied money for his funeral expenses because of mistakes her son made in the past.
"I thought he'd be turned down for sure because he had a record," she said. "And even more importantly than that, I didn't want to go through the pain of having them say, 'We can't give you compensation because of the way your son lived his life.' Well, I loved my son ... I know the goodness in my son. I'm his mother."
While MacDonald's son was not involved in a crime at the time of his death – he was robbed and shot at a Raleigh motel on Jan. 26, 2012 – he did have a criminal record. Since his crimes were not serious felonies and occurred more than three years before his death, his mother was allowed to collect $5,000 from the state for his funeral.
"I felt like it was just a gift from heaven for me," said MacDonald, who received the money about a month after she applied. "It wasn't so much the money as somebody recognized that I had this huge loss in my life."
MacDonald says the application process "was very easy."
"They were so nice and they were so compassionate that it made me feel like, 'OK, maybe this wasn't a bad idea,'" she said. "My experience with victims compensation was 100 percent great."
Although the process was easy, MacDonald says she might have missed the two-year deadline to apply if she hadn't joined a support group in Durham, where she first heard about the Crime Victims Compensation program.
"Marcia's the one that really prompted me. I really give her the credit," MacDonald said.
"No one had told her," said Marcia Owen, executive director of the Religious Coalition For a Nonviolent Durham. "I said (to MacDonald), 'Did you get your compensation?' I ask every mother. That's one of the first things I do. If they haven't heard about it, it's like, 'What?'"
Bonnie Turner says she had a similar experience. Her 19-year-old son was killed in Durham on May 17, 2011, but she didn't find out about the crime victims fund until she joined the Parents of Murdered Children support group months later.
"I had never heard of it," she said. "Nobody told me anything (about the fund). The only thing (police) asked of me was did I want to talk to the chaplain with the police department or did I want to talk to the news media."
Bonnie Turner and her son, Jeremy Turner
After joining the support group, Turner says, a woman encouraged her to apply for money to help cover her son's funeral, but Turner chose not to. She was afraid she would be turned down, she says, because police told her that her son was the aggressor in the double shooting that left him and another man dead.
"I said, 'I don't want to put myself through any unnecessary situations, because I won't sit back and let anybody talk negative about my son,'" she said. "I don't know how it works, but I can't go through anything else. I really can't."
Since losing their sons, MacDonald and Turner have turned to support groups for comfort and to share their stories. MacDonald says she hopes to use her experience with the Crime Victims Compensation fund to help other victims and their families. She has joined the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network – a group that Adams helped create after he lost his son in 1982.
"People that are grieving, it's work. It's exhausting. It takes a lot of energy. Some of those folks, it's all they can do to get up in the morning and go to work, if they can even do that," MacDonald said. "For me, reaching out to help other people is my way of making something positive out of Stephen's life."
'Victims probably aren't paying much attention to that'
By law, North Carolina law enforcement agencies are required to let victims know within 72 hours what resources are available to them, including victims' compensation. But getting that information to people during one of the most stressful times in their lives can be difficult.
"I had a great district attorney and a great lead detective who I met with. If they told me, I don't remember it," MacDonald said. "You're in such a state of shock after something like that happens that you're not really worried about those kinds of things. You're just trying to process your loss."
Adding to the confusion, victims' advocates say, is that each law enforcement agency has a different way of providing the information to victims – some hand out business cards, some mail letters, some use email.
"There are thousands of independent law enforcement agencies across the state, and I can promise you that there probably are about a thousand different ways (of getting the information to victims)," said Peg Dorer, executive director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys. "Chances are that's going to happen within the first couple days of whatever catastrophe hit. Victims probably aren't paying much attention to that, and I can understand why."
In Raleigh, police hand out a one-page "Victim Information Sheet," which briefly mentions the victims compensation program about halfway down the page, below domestic violence and sexual assault services.
"It is provided in person by officers or detectives during the initial stages of case responses or investigations," said Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue. "I’m confident every effort is made to personally convey the information."
In Durham, police mail letters to crime victims, along with an application for victims compensation and brochures detailing various services that are available.
"The letters include contact information if the victim needs more information about the specific services offered," said Durham police spokeswoman Kammie Michael.
Another way victims are supposed to find out about the program is through victim witness legal assistants, who work in district attorneys' offices across the state.
"They're basically a liaison between the court system and a victim," said Megan Lively, a former victim witness legal assistant who now works with the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys. "They are there to help victims understand the criminal justice process, because it's confusing and scary."
Megan Lively, resource victim witness legal assistant, and Peg Dorer, director, of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys
In Lively's current job, which is funded by a federal grant, she uses her experience as a victim witness legal assistant to help train and provide technical assistance to others across the state. One of her goals is to make sure victims and their family members are told about the compensation fund – something MacDonald and Turner say didn't happen in their cases.
"I'd apologize to them about that," Lively said. "As a legal assistant, you're supposed to be letting victims know that this exists, and law enforcement (should let them know, too). So, they got failed twice. It's unfortunate."
MAP: 2012-13 CRIME VICTIM COMPENSATION
These maps show payments made to crime victims by county for the 2012-13 federal fiscal year. The first map shows overall payments broken down by county. The second map takes each county's population into account and shows payments per 100 people. The color white represents counties that received no payments, either because victims did not apply for financial help or were turned down for various reasons. The darker green colors represent counties that received more money. Click on the counties to learn more.
Victims compensation director: 'It breaks my heart'
In her 14 years with the Crime Victims Compensation program, Janice Carmichael has heard a lot of sad stories.
"It breaks my heart when I have a case where a 10-year-old is brutally raped," she said. "You would be amazed at the number of crimes. We're not getting phone calls that we consider positive. We are getting phone calls from victims that are begging for our help, literally."
Carmichael, who has served as director of victims compensation for the past 12 years, is responsible for reviewing thousands of cases each year and deciding which victims get financial help. She handles the cases under $12,500 and sends her recommendations for the more expensive claims to the commission. The program is part of the state Department of Public Safety.
Her 12-member staff, two of whom are bilingual, help sort through the cases and talk with victims and their families. Each case is reviewed by a claims examiner to make sure the victims are eligible to receive financial help.
"(The examiner is) trying to see if the victim has any type of collateral source – if they have any health insurance, if they have disability income, anything to help them, because we’re a payer of last resort," Carmichael said.
One of the most difficult jobs is telling family members they can't get compensated for funeral expenses because of their loved one's past.
"Say that a victim has been murdered, and through your investigation it was proven that the victim was involved in criminal activity," Carmichael said. "(Family members) don't want to believe it, and that's really hard. It goes from anger to, 'What do you mean you're not paying for this? How dare you say my son was involved?' to just totally breaking down and crying."
"Very seldom do we hear 'thank you,' and I'm not saying we don't ... we do get cards occasionally," she added. "But more than that, we have people furious that we're not helping them."
Janice Carmichael, director of the N.C. Crime Victims Compensation program
Carmichael says she would like to help more people, but the law prevents her. For example, children who are raped and molested can be compensated for counseling, but the fund does not cover counseling for the child's parents.
"If I had a daughter that had been raped and was going through counseling, yeah, I’d want to be in there to see, 'What is my role? What am I supposed to be doing to help my daughter get through this?'" Carmichael said. "The other thing I’d like to see is that we pay for counseling for families of homicide victims ... I’m talking about the direct family members that were living in the house at the time of the crime."
She would also like to provide emergency relocation for domestic violence victims, "just to get the victim away from a dangerous situation," she said.
Since the federal government gives North Carolina 60 cents for every dollar spent on victims compensation, Carmichael says she would like to see lawmakers increase the program's appropriation.
"We don't ever have money left over," she said. "If you got any business sense at all, it’s just a win-win for the state to increase the appropriation to get a 60 percent match to help us pay and to help the victims get more."
Sen. Buck Newton, R-Johnston, Nash, Wilson, is co-chairman of the Appropriations on Justice and Public Safety committee, which helps decide how much funding the Crime Victims Compensation program should get.
"I’m not aware of any requests from them for an expansion of their budget," he said.
Statistics from the 2012-13 federal fiscal year show North Carolina paid nearly $9 million to help 1,446 victims of crime. Victims in Mecklenburg County received the most money – $938,355 for 183 claims – while 12 counties received no money.
Carmichael says she gives speeches around the state, trying to let people know that the program exists.
"One time I was giving a presentation and one of the gentlemen said, 'You’re not sending any money to my county,' and I said, 'Well, it’s not a matter of me choosing who I send money to ... we’re not getting applications from your county,'" Carmichael recalled. "So, what I do, I come back and do outreach in that county … Believe me, there’s crime in every county."
For every crime, there is a story – stories like MacDonald's and Turner's and thousands of other victims and their family members. It's those stories, Carmichael says, that stick with her.
"I know I’m a nice person, but I get very angry when victims lose everything and I think that that offender’s getting three meals a day and a bed to sleep on and doesn’t have to worry about if he gets sick and how that’s going to be taken care of," Carmichael said. "You can't read these cases every day of your life and not know how fortunate you are that you haven't been affected by crime."