Read follow up stories: Board defends role in victim compensation

Victims panel to be revamped

Victims of crime mired in red tape, panel finds

Overhaul of board serving them delayed by opposition

By GINGER GIBSON –Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The News Journal

Patty D’Angelo’s nightmare started late one night, when her boyfriend beat her unconscious and held a knife to her neck.

Three years later, after he left her with a black eye, a busted lip, numerous bruises and a torn earlobe, she left him for good.

“I have a scar that will be with me for the rest of my life,” D’Angelo said, choking back tears as she pulled her hair aside to show the damage to her ear.

D’Angelo, now 52, found a system of support to help her recover: Wilmington Police Department employees who helped her navigate the legal system, a therapist who helped her work through the trauma and discussion groups of fellow abuse victims that provided support.

But when she sought assistance from the Violent Crimes Compensation Board — a state commission designed to provide financial assistance to victims of violent crime — she said it was like reliving her abuse all over again. It lost her paperwork several times, it would only pay half her medical bills and she kept having to find more and more documentation to prove her story.

D’Angelo now is part of a group pushing for overhaul of the commission, urging state regulators to make it more victim-friendly by reducing bureaucracy and honing procedures to ensure victims actually get the millions of dollars set aside for them.

That effort has been bogged down, some say, in a politicized process that seems more focused on protecting the salaries and pensions of the commission’s longtime members than it is on protecting the crime victims they serve.

The Violent Crimes Compensation Board doles out funds collected from traffic tickets and fines levied against people convicted of violent crimes. Under state law, those dollars are earmarked to provide violent crime victims with money for medical care lost wages, counseling, crime scene cleanup, moving and other costs for the victims of violent crime, including assault, arson and vehicular crimes.

Stephanie Hamilton, victims’ advocate at the Wilmington Police Department who helped D’Angelo, said she has seen many victims forced to jump through so many hoops to get assistance from the board that they eventually give up.

“It’s revictimizing when the system does something to a victim to make them live it again,” Hamilton said, noting the stringent process hardly seems necessary considering the board has not come close to allocating the $6 million sitting in its bank account.

Board opposes recommendations

Hamilton and D’Angelo worked with a task force that recommended changes to the Violent Crimes Compensation Board to the state Legislature’s Joint Sunset Committee, an oversight group responsible for periodically evaluating the performance of state-level boards and commissions.

The recommended changes would include a more extensive appeals system before a victim is turned away and phasing out the current salaries and set-up of the commission — which is one of only two state boards that gives members a piece of the state pension.

Thomas Castaldi, director of the board, said the boards opposition to the proposed changes are based on three principles — transparency, accountability and independence.

One of the recommendations — changing the board to allow a staff member to make the initial determination as to whether a victim will receive compensation — removes the checks and balances needed to ensure the program operates correctly, Castaldi said. He said the board is more capable of interpreting the statutes and making a fair decision at its public meetings.

“It seems to me we’re going to take a step backward in transparency,” Castaldi said.

Castaldi said the board keeps records of which victims it awards monetary relief to and which it doesn’t, adding a level of accountability.

He added that those making the determination of whether a victim will receive compensation shouldn’t be the same staff member helping to compile the victim’s application.

Removing incentives proposed

Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark South, who sits on the Sunset Committee, said he became concerned about the Violent Crimes Compensation Board when he heard it wasn’t coming close to giving out the funds allocated for victims.

When victims and advocates complained at a Sunset Committee meeting, the committee reached an agreement that an overhaul was needed, he said.

The Sunset Committee also found a chance to save some money. The four board members each receive an annual $10,000 salary, the chairman gets $12,000 and they all are part of the state’s pension.

Kowalko said the committee voted to remove those incentives, so that when members’ terms expired they would move to the compensationother board members receive — $100 a meeting — and new members would not get a pension. They submitted the restructuring recommendations to the full Legislature in the form of a bill sponsored by Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark, and co-sponsored by Kowalko.

However, it is unlikely any of those changes will go into effect. The bill was assigned June 4 to the Senate Executive Committee and lawmakers say it has little hope of seeing light again in the few remaining days of the session.

That bothers Kowalko, who sees the bill’s apparent doom as a product of entrenched politicians protecting friends. He suspects the recommendation to eliminate the $10,000-plus salaries are among the reasons the bill has not been brought up for debate.

“Almost a sense of patronage and entitlement has come in to dismantle the work of the Joint Sunset Committee,” Kowalko said.

Kowalko said the Joint Sunset Committee is meant to keep an eye on government, and having its recommendations ignored doesn’t let them keep its watchdog role.

“This is a serious situation — we’re talking about crime victims — but the overall attitude about the Sunset Committee and its value of being a watchdog is gutted by using the good old boy network,” Kowalko said.

Currently sitting on the five-member board, all of whom were appointed to their current three-year terms by former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, are chairman Castaldi, vice chairwoman Leah W. Betts, V. Lynn Gregory, Thaddeus Koston and Stephanie I. Liguori. Betts, a Milton city councilwoman, previously served as vice chairwoman of the state Democratic Party and Gregory is the wife of Wilmington Democratic Committee Chairman and former City Councilman Theo Gregory. Betts, Gregory and Liguori did not respond to requests for an interview; Koston referred questions to Castaldi.

Interpretation of the law questioned

Susan Alfree, victims’ advocate at the Newark Police Department, said she’s watched the committee deny assistance to victims based on members’ own interpretations of the law.

As an example, she cited the roommate of slain University of Delaware student Lindsey Bonistall.

Alfree said Bonistall’s roommate had been on a camping trip with her father in April 2005, when James E. Cooke Jr. raped and murdered Bonistall, then set the apartment on fire.

Because the Violent Crimes Compensation Board lists arson as a crime, Alfree said she worked to help Bonistall’s roommate apply for compensation for her belongings that were destroyed in the fire or taken by police as evidence.

Alfree said the board sent a letter quoting the law and saying the roommate didn’t qualify because she wasn’t in the apartment during the crime.

“Had she been at the apartment then, she would qualify as a victim, but because she wasn’t there — she wasn’t in the apartment when her roommate was killed — she didn’t qualify,” Alfree said. “It seemed to me that the interpretation was too narrow. The fact that the statute was quoted, it was dismissive and perpetuated victimization.”

Castaldi said that case was denied because the roommate was a secondary victim, and therefore didn’t meet requirements under law to be a victim.

Alfree said another victim she worked with, a Newark man who was assaulted, suffered financially because of the compensation board. Although it agreed to pay his medical bills, it waited so long to do so that doctors reported the man to a collection agency.

“That’s damaging, their credit history is going to stay with them,” Alfree said. “To keep having to go back and deal with it and make phone calls certainly perpetuates victimization.”

Accusations of inaction

Brown, executive director of the commission, said that since she started working for the board a year ago, she’s already started to implement some of the task-force recommendations, including creation of an electronic system to ensure bills are paid promptly.

Brown said the commission will have paid about $2 million for victims when the fiscal year ends this month. That will leave the commission with just less than $6 million in its accounts. Brown said when the commission has more than $6 million at the end of a fiscal year, the excess is reverted into the General Fund.

D’Angelo said her experience with the commission was such a nightmare that, at some points, she just wanted to give up.

“They kept saying, ‘refax it, refax it,’ ” D’Angelo said.

It took a year before the board finally signed off on paying her medical bills, she said, adding that she was fortunate her doctor’s office was understanding and didn’t turn her over to a collection agency.

To recover lost wages, she said, the board required her to turn in five pay stubs from the time she missed work, which would have required her to go to her employer and explain why.

D’Angelo said she was reluctant to tell her employers why they need the pay stubs. That, she said, was the reason she gave up on asking the board to recover lost pay.

D’Angelo carries a copy of a painting she made in a therapy session that symbolizes her escape from the cycle of abuse.

She painted the canvas black and blue as a symbol of the bruises she had felt, and in smearing the paint, she began to see an arrow and sky form.

“I drew the sky and saw my way out,” D’Angelo said.