Crime Victims' Compensation Fund facing changes

Fund’s balance has slowly eroded and will be nearly depleted by end of August

By Ciara O’Rourke and Farzad Mashhood
Austin American-Statesman

SAN MARCOS, Texas (AP) — For years, George Weynand could hardly look another man in the eye.

He was afraid they could tell what had happened to him. An elder at his church had started sexually assaulting him when he was 16. The abuse lasted years and left him reeling for many more.
It wasn’t until he attended group therapy sessions at the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center in 2011 that he realized others had suffered from similar violence. Weynand, 63, said that therapy changed him.

“I’m a totally different person,” he said. “I’m not afraid anymore.”

But steep declines in the state Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund mean the program that helped him — and other victim services programs across the state — might have to be eliminated or reduced.

The compensation fund, which reimburses victims of violent crime for expenses not covered by insurance or restitution, has seen a declining balance since Texas lawmakers decided about a decade ago to tap into the fund to support programs serving battered women, sexual assault victims and abused children.

Two years ago, amid a state budget crunch, legislative leaders used the fund to pay for victim services programs that had previously been paid for from the state’s general fund. As a result, since 2001, the fund’s balance of $269 million has slowly eroded and will be nearly depleted by the end of August.

The state attorney general’s office, which administers the fund, has said legislative action will be needed to preserve the fund’s financial stability. Grants awarded to victim services organizations might have to be reduced by 57 percent, said Marla Johnson, executive director for the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center.

In 2011, more than $39 million in grants was awarded to 437 nonprofit organizations and government agencies that serve crime victims, according to the attorney general’s office, including domestic violence shelters and victim advocacy centers.

Money for the fund comes largely from court costs imposed on defendants in misdemeanor and felony criminal cases. Since 2008, there has been an estimated 3 percent average decline in those collections, according to the attorney general’s office.

For crime victim services organizations, the outlook is grim. The attorney general’s office is projecting that, if nothing changes, grants from the fund must be reduced by $45 million over the next two years — a 57 percent reduction from funding levels in 2012-13.

Johnson said that grants paid for by the Compensation to Victims of Crime Fund are the largest funding source for the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center and that such a steep cut — $269,000 — would force the center to lay off seven full-time employees.

Crime victims seeking help could still get emergency crisis intervention services, she said, such as staying at a shelter for 30 days and forensic interview recordings for child abuse victims. But victims wouldn’t be able to receive help such as long-term therapy that they need to address the complex issues that have kept them in an abusive relationship, she said.

“More victims would be forced to return to a violent home and to live with the scars of abuse,” she said.

One of the largest recipients of the money from the crime fund, Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas, is distributing the $8 million it received this year to its 66 local offices across the state. The proposed cut would lower that funding to $3.47 million, said executive director Joy Rauls.

“If the cuts were to be adopted, it really, truly would be devastating to our programs,” which serve 40,000 children, most of whom are victims of sexual abuse, Rauls said.

The organization’s core program involves housing and interviewing children who have made outcries of abuse, Rauls said. A budget cut would be applied evenly to counties statewide — offices in Georgetown, Austin, San Marcos and Bastrop would see a combined drop from $474,000 this year to $204,000 next year — but Rauls said it’s not clear what programs would be cut from each local office. The state funding accounts for up to half of each local office’s revenue, but Rauls didn’t have breakdowns for each office.

“A 57 percent cut would not cause us to shut down a program,” said Laura Wolf, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates’ Travis County office. “It would mean for sure we would not be able to grow. And because the numbers of kids coming into the child welfare system are growing, if we took a cut, there would be a greater number of children that did not receive services at CASA.”

The grants are the Travis County CASA office’s largest source of funding — about $400,000 out of $2.8 million this year for the organization that provides court-appointed advocates for abused and neglected children. Wolf said the organization served 1,525 children in Travis County last year, estimated to be 80 percent of those needing an advocate.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said she’s concerned about the long-term effect that declining funds will have on victim assistance grants. Nelson said she wants to find a more reliable method of funding the awards. She called the funds “indispensable.”

But even if the funding cut doesn’t happen, Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, isn’t optimistic that organizations will receive the kind of funding they need to match the increasing need for services.

“I think the status quo would be as big of a victory as we can expect right now,” she said.