For families of some crime victims, the process to receive compensation for funerals and lost income can be simple. For others, it can be nearly impossible. The results depend on rules set by the state they live in.
In Maryland and the District of Columbia, for example, it’s relatively easy to receive compensation from the state.
In Ohio, if the victim was convicted of a drug-related or violent crime in the last ten years, their survivors are ineligible for compensation.
If the victim was likely involved in committing a crime when they were killed, their survivors are ineligible.
If the survivor who would receive the money has been convicted of a drug or violent crime in the last ten years, they are ineligible to receive money.
And since Ohio doesn’t pay up-front for funeral expenses, grieving families have an extra challenge to overcome after an unexpected death, often of a young person without life insurance.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, 33% of all murder victims in 2015 were between the ages of 20 and 29 — the largest share among age groups — and almost twice as many as were over 50.
‘Their Emotions Are So Raw’
“Because I’m seeing families when they’re initially finding out [a loved one has died],” said Matthew Krock, a trauma social worker at University Hospitals in Cleveland. “They’re not often in a state to receive that information because it’s so early, their emotions are so raw.”
It’s Krock’s job to help a family at the hospital. He guides them through the process after their loved one is pronounced dead. He answers their questions. And, in the typically short time while they’re at the hospital, he helps them fill out the paperwork for victim compensation.
“I mean as you can imagine, given the circumstances, it can be difficult and they might not even want to discuss it,” said Krock. But if they seem like they’re able to, he’ll bring them a simplified version of the state’s application. “And we have mailboxes here in the hospital [so] that I can help them mail it. I make sure they have the phone number, the website — everything they might need.”
Ohio Vs. Maryland
Even that help is often not enough.
Ohio’s victim compensation fund provided economic assistance in 313 homicide cases in 2018, only 3.23% of the applications it accepted. That’s 46th out of the 50 states and District of Columbia.
Ohio’s compensation fund began in 1976. Over time the process has been simplified. Originally the state set up a board of attorneys to make a ruling after the attorney general’s office made its recommendation. Now the attorney general makes the payment decision itself.
In 1982, the legislature ended eligibility for victims or recipients that had committed a drug-related offense or violent felony in the last ten years. Reportedly, that was because well-known gangsters were using the compensation fund.
Maryland, in contrast, has much more lenient laws on victim compensation than Ohio. According to analysis by Guns & America, nearly 50% of the cases in Maryland in 2018 were reimbursement for homicide. Assault cases made up another 40%.
In Maryland, the criminal records of the victim and survivors don’t affect whether payout is given. The only criteria are that the victim wasn’t involved in the crime that led to their homicide and that the survivor cooperated with law enforcement.
‘It Is Very, Very Challenging’
Rosemary Creeden works with families of homicide victims at the Cleveland social services agency FrontLine Service. They’re part of the National Childhood Trauma Network, and hear from social services providers elsewhere about how easy getting money for families can be.
“We had a site in D.C. and it was made known to us that that is not an issue at all in the District [of Columbia],” said Creeden. “That no matter what the history, no matter what the circumstance, the district buries people.”
According to Creeden, a funeral in Cleveland costs between $7,500 and $9,000, a significant burden when the median income is $29,000, or about $2,400 per month. Then there’s the frequent loss of income right after the homicide and while attending a trial, if there is one.
“It’s very, very challenging, at a time when it’s probably the worst time of your life, having lost someone like that,” said Creeden.
She says they’ve approached legislators about changing the rules in Ohio. But changes haven’t been made.
“Every single person that does victim services in the city of Cleveland is keenly aware of this,” said Creeden. “And when they have site visits from the [Attorney General]’s office it is discussed very frequently.”
Luis Melgar contributed to this reporting.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.