Board defends role in victim compensation

Proposed overhaul would put decisions in staff’s hands

By GINGER GIBSON — Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The News Journal

DOVER — Members of the Violent Crimes Compensation Board, a complete overhaul of which was recommended recently by a legislative oversight group, say they are not opposed to making changes in the way they operate, but they want their regulations, not their board, to be revamped.

A task force including victims and victim advocates has been lobbying the Legislature to pass a bill that would overhaul the board, changing its purpose from making decisions about financial compensation for crime victims to simply serving as an appeals board that reviews decisions made by its staff. The overhauls also would move the staff to the supervision of the Department of Justice, rather than reporting solely to the board, and change the way board members are compensated — replacing their $10,000 to $12,000 salaries with the state’s standard rate of $100 per meeting for the board’s weekly meetings and eliminating for future members the state pensions current board members receive.

Those pushing for the overhaul cite a long list of problems in their encounters with the board, including delays and wrongful denials.

But members of the board say the problems aren’t created by the board itself but by the regulatory restraints placed on them while trying to help victims. “It’s a cumbersome process. It could be an easier process,” board member Thaddeus Koston said. “We’re mandated by the process that is in place.”

The board is responsible for doling out funds collected from traffic tickets and fines levied against people convicted of violent crimes. Under state law, those dollars are earmarked to provide 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.

Leah Betts, vice chairwoman of the board, said often she wishes she could provide more assistance to victims who come before her, but state laws set strict limits on what she can allow.

“We cannot pay for diamond earrings,” Betts said, referring to a case the board heard Tuesday in which a robbery victim asked for money to replace stolen jewelry. “We have to make sure we’re accountable. Every board member would welcome changes. There are times I’ve gone home upset because I couldn’t help someone.”

Legislative delay

The Legislature’s Joint Sunset Committee has proposed a complete overhaul of the committee after several victims and advocates showed up at its meetings to express objections to how the board is run. But legislation that would have implemented the changes isn’t expected to be heard before the Legislature breaks for the year after June.

Thomas Castaldi, the board’s chairman, said putting decisions on how to spend state dollars in the hands of staffers would reduce transparency; the board meets and makes its decisions in public, he said, while the staff would not.

This week, at its weekly Tuesday meeting, it reviewed a dozen applications for compensation one at a time.

For each application, members read a stack of paperwork provided by the board’s staff, asked a few questions and then voted on three questions for each: Was the applicant an innocent victim, was the requested compensation related to the crime and would the board award the funds?

The process is done without names to keep the victims’ identities confidential and sometimes votes are taken with few details discussed in the public meeting.

Those details, however, can be enough to identify certain cases.

On Tuesday, for example, the board considered an emergency application to provide funeral expenses for a 22-month-old girl from Milford who allegedly was killed by her mother’s 19-year-old boyfriend, Carl E. Sewell, earlier this month.

While the board awarded the $8,000 needed for funeral expenses, it did not award the applicant’s request to be compensated for lost wages because the person’s pay stubs weren’t provided. Board members told an investigator working with the family to have the applicant return within the next several months with the proper documentation.

Another application from the family of a man killed in Dover, also seeking funds for the funeral, was denied.

After reading the police report, the committee decided that because the man had crack cocaine on him at the time of his death and police said he was selling the crack cocaine earlier, he did not meet the requirement of being an innocent victim.