Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath: Evaluating State Victim Compensation Programs
December 04, 2018
The decision to speak out can be a costly one; even if a victim decides to come forward, medical and legal costs can create financial hardships. In the United States, state victim compensation programs have been established to address these costs faced by sufferers of violent crimes; however, after analyzing these programs nationwide, it is clear that they do not adequately address the costs of sexual assault.
State Victim Compensation Program Overview
The Victims of Crime Act of 1984 established a system in which fines and penalties paid by those convicted of federal offenses contribute to the Crime Victims Fund, which provides funding for restitution programs. Such programs cover the expenses accumulated as a result of crimes, including lost wages, medical bills, and costs of counseling. The majority of injured parties who have received compensation have been victims of assault, homicide, child abuse, and robbery, but those who have been subject to sexual assault, kidnapping, arson, and other crimes are also eligible. In fiscal years 2013 and 2014, the Victims of Crime Act funding provided payment to 275,470 individuals, with rewards totaling $751,015,672. In 2013 and 2014, adult sexual assault survivors made up only 6 percent of those receiving compensation through state programs.
Several criteria must be met in order to apply for and receive reparations from the state programs. These criteria vary from state to state, but across the board, victims have to: be a resident of the state, or have the crime occur in the state; report the crime to law enforcement, usually within a predetermined time frame; cooperate with law enforcement; submit a timely application for compensation, usually within a maximum of two years following the crime; and apply only after receiving recompense from all other insurance options. In some cases, states may only offer an application to this program if the injured party suffered physical injury as a result of the crime, and may not compensate for pain and suffering. In the majority of state programs, such stringent criteria can be a hindrance, especially when statutory limitations make victims ineligible for any monetary redress. For sexual assault specifically, the criteria can prove to be very limiting for potential applicants.
Sexual Assault Cases
In order to receive any payment, victims are required to report the crime to law enforcement right away, usually between 24 and 72 hours following the crime. Sexual assault, however, remains the most under-reported crime, with only 37% of assaults reported to the police. Among college-age females, this statistic is even lower - only around 20% of students and 32% of non-students report sexual assaults. The underreporting of sexual assault is a result of a variety of factors, some of the main reasons include the fear of retaliation, the belief that reporting will be futile, and feelings of self-blame, guilt, or embarrassment. Individuals are especially unlikely to report the crime if they were assaulted by someone they know, and 8 out of 10 rape victims know the perpetrator. The requirements of the compensation programs can therefore exacerbate the effects these factors have on a victim’s life. They may already be grappling with negative feelings about the event, and if these factors result in failure to report the assault to the police in the given time constraints, they are also no longer eligible for the federal or state programs through the Crime Victims Fund.
Comparing Costs and Compensation
Even if a sexual assault victim files a claim for compensation, there is no guarantee that all of their costs will be covered. Estimates of the tangible economic losses suffered by survivors of sexual assault are around $41,252, and intangible costs are approximately $199,642, for a total of $240,776. Tangible economic losses include direct economic losses, such as medical costs and costs of a trial, whereas indirect costs include pain, suffering, and diminished quality of life. Even with private insurance, victims are often left to cover at least part of the medical expenses - which can near $9,000 - and must deal with the intangible costs on their own. The National Center for Biotechnology Information explains that for every 100,000 women who participate in a large health plan, the use of abuse-related health care services amounted to $19.3 million annually.
Additionally, many victims of sexual assault do not seek medical care because of the prohibitive cost, as victim funds do not take into account costs associated with transportation, insurance coverage, and access to resources. As such, individuals are more likely to drink or smoke excessively to cope, which are other costs to society.
All but two states impose caps on the maximum payout award. These caps vary from a low of $10,000 in several states to a high of $222,000 in Washington (see Figure 2), with an average maximum payout of about $35,000. Few victims, however, receive awards close to the maximum. The average award per claim in 2002 was $2,900, ranging from a low of $260 in Nevada to a high of $8,000 in New Jersey. The compensation provided by the Crime Victims Fund is clearly nowhere near the actual cost faced by those subject to sexual assault, even when supplemented by private insurance.
Flaws in the Compensation System
Even when the victim compensation programs provide sufficient funds, there are issues that still need to be addressed in the rollout of such programs. A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that the compensation programs are heavily under-utilized by victims of violent crime, especially when “young, male, [or an] ethnic minority,” with only 5% of victims actually applying. The biggest barrier for potential applicants is that victims are not “consistently notified of their rights to receive compensation.” The lack of education about this program leaves many victims seemingly without the choice to seek reparations.
Additionally, an alarming limitation is the funneling of victim restitution funds to medical forensic exams, or rape kits. In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act required that states must cover all of the costs for sexual medical forensic exams in order to receive federal funding for programs and services that assist women who are victims of violence. However, states have made compensation funds their largest source of money for these exams. Indeed, these funds are used to pay for some of the exams in thirty-four states, with nineteen states using only these funds to pay for rape kits. States undermining one program to fund another prevents victims from being able to adequately address the consequences of the crime committed against them.
From the administrative side, endless bureaucracy and under-resourced agencies undermine state programs. In a study of 452 victims, the verification of claims led to the delay of payment to over one-fourth of survivors. Additionally, understaffing creates burdens in state agencies across the country. In Indiana, for example, with only three staff members, the compensation agency is “three years behind on payments and a majority of claims [have] not even been processed.” Such issues must be addressed for the system to properly assist individuals who seek help after being victimized.
Increasing public awareness of victim compensation programs can increase their accessibility and effectiveness, as many of those eligible are unaware such programs exist. Research has shown that outreach can increase applications for compensation among victims. Several solutions have been proposed, such as implementing statewide toll-free numbers for victims to call to receive information about compensation. One noteworthy solution has been implemented in Washington, D.C.: rather than having applications file for claims digitally, compensation programs have moved into hospitals, allowing for direct outreach to victims. This would be especially effective for victims of sexual assault, who are more likely to seek medical care or a medical forensic exam than report to law enforcement.
On the administrative side, channeling funding towards hiring a larger staff could reduce backlog and delays in providing compensation. Sexual assault victims already face a prolonged trial process, including delays in rape kit testing, so helping survivors get their claims processed sooner can alleviate the burden on both compensation agencies and victims. To make sure that agencies have sufficient funds to hire more staff, government officials should create a separate fund for rape kit testing so that the compensation program funds do not have to be used.
Although state victim compensation programs are already an important resource for survivors of sexual assault, they have the potential to expand their impact by enacting these changes. While dialogue surrounding sexual assault is gaining national media attention, it is critical to shine a spotlight on the aftermath of sexual assault and implement feasible policy changes that can ensure a better quality of life for survivors.
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