Tyrisha Robinson tenses up whenever she has to remember the day she ended her child’s life.
In April last year, her 23-year-old son, Tyree, was shot in the neck in a street shooting. Complications from his injury later landed him on life support at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, where his mother lived.
“I didn’t want him to suffer anymore,” she says. “So I watched my boy transition from life to death.”
After his funeral, Robinson filed for financial help through the victims’ compensation office in Delaware, the state where Tyree was shot. The disbursement of such funds is something that every state offers as a result of a 1984 law that made restitution available to those affected by violent crime. The amount granted to victims or their families varies by state. But to help recoup expenses that directly result from a crime, such as funeral and burial costs, crime-scene cleanup and lost wages, total reimbursement can range anywhere from $10,000 all the way up to $100,000.
Robinson asked for $6,000 to cover a portion of her son’s funeral and the loss of earnings from her job as a medical claims specialist. She was denied.
Delaware’s victims’ compensation board had ruled that she was ineligible for the money. Her son had violated his probation (Tyree had previously been in prison for selling drugs), and because of that, they said, he was partially responsible for his own death.
Robinson didn’t have thousands of dollars stashed away. The denial was not only a blow to what little savings she did have, but also to her dignity.
“Him violating his parole had nothing to do with him being shot, nor me burying him as a result of his injuries,” she says. “I just don’t feel it’s fair that they made this decision based on his [prior] actions.”
Though states’ compensation funds dole out millions of dollars each year, there is a litany of reasons why families of homicide victims can be turned away. One of the most controversial is based on what’s known as “contributory conduct,” which allows a state to deny funds to a victim’s family if homicide detectives find that the person killed was in some way responsible for their own death.
And while a victim’s actions at the time of death can be helpful in catching the killer, rarely are they ever used in court as evidence for the perpetrator’s motive. Contrast that with claims to victims’ compensation funds, where the behavior of the deceased is a primary driver of whether a family member will receive money.
An investigation by NationSwell looked at county data in six states — Arizona, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas — which showed that thousands of families are denied compensation each year because of the contributory conduct clause. Many of them suspect that their race is a factor, but police and state officials flatly reject that assertion.
Regulators who process claims say they are just following federal law. But one victims’ services group in Philadelphia, the city with the highest number of compensation claims filed each year in Pennsylvania, is helping families navigate the system and fight for their right to fair treatment.
HELP COMES WITH A CATCH
When Congress first passed the Victims of Crime Act of 1984, it was an anomaly at a time when entitlement spending was being slashed by the Reagan administration. The allocation of federal funds to create state offices gave access to tens of millions of dollars to victims and victims’ rights organizations every year, primarily through restitution payments imposed on convicted offenders.
State offices, which are responsible for handling and managing claims, are reliant on federal grants to pay victims as well as fund victims’ advocate services. Delaware, where Tyree Robinson was shot, received over $6 million in federal grants last year, according to the national Office for Victims of Crime.
Nonprofits also rely heavily on federal grants to offer services for victims of various crimes, such as sex trafficking or mass shootings. In 2017, for example, $4 million in federal funds went to victims or their families of the 2015 San Bernardino, California, mass shooting that killed 14, not including the two shooters.
For mother-daughter team Victoria Greene and Chantay Love, who together run Every Murder Is Real Healing Center (EMIR) in Philadelphia, keeping their organization afloat means working with Pennsylvania’s Office of Victims’ Services.
“We receive funding through that office,” Love, EMIR’s program director, says. “Which makes some of our advocacy, well, complicated. We want the state to create policies that allow victims to heal without judgment.”
The two are on the ground almost daily visiting the families of homicide victims — sometimes within hours of a murder — to try to get them into therapy, and also help them navigate the compensation process.
The latter is integral for hundreds of families in Philadelphia, where the gun murder rate increased 15.8 percent in 2017 despite a drop in overall shootings, according to police records shared with NationSwell. Of the nearly 1,400 murders recorded in the city since 2012, most have been of young black men. In 2015, they accounted for close to 60 percent of homicides.
Surviving family members overwhelmingly live in poor neighborhoods and often do not have the immediate resources to pay thousands of dollars for an unexpected funeral.
“Families are living day-to-day simply trying to figure out how to keep food on the table,” says Love. “Once the tragedy of a homicide occurs, survivors are gasping for air. A funeral is not in the budget.”
Between 2010 and 2015, Pennsylvania’s Victims’ Compensation Assistance Program (VCAP) shelled out over $77 million to victims of all crimes, including assault and homicide. But, Love says, the problem is not with claims being paid, but in the hundreds of denials that are handed down each year.
Data provided by VCAP shows that the state issued 780 denials between 2012 and 2015 based on contributory conduct, making up 37 percent of total denials. And though that number is just over 2 percent of the tens of thousands of claims the office received within the same time span, families affected say it’s unfairly punishing them for crimes they had no part in. The system has lost its original purpose, they say, and now instead of helping victims’ families, it’s criminalizing them.
In an email exchange, VCAP manager Jeffrey Blystone said the office is only following the law and that determinations shouldn’t reflect on the family.
“A denial of a claim is in no way an attempt to further punish a family,” he said. “VCAP is governed by the Crime Victims Act, and the Act requires VCAP to determine whether the victim’s conduct contributed to the victim’s injuries. The Act also requires that VCAP’s award or denial be based upon that determination.”
But of the states studied by NationSwell, Pennsylvania doesn’t have the worst record when it comes to denying families’ claims for reimbursement. In neighboring New Jersey, 60 percent of all denials were due to contributory conduct in the same time period, according to data from the state’s Victims of Crime Compensation Office.
Other states have additional regulations that specify if a person committed a felony within a certain time period before their death, their family is also ineligible for reimbursement.
In Louisiana, for example, NationSwell found that nearly 70 percent of denials between 2010 and 2015 were based on contributory conduct, which included whether the victim had committed a felony in the five years prior to their death.
This, advocates argue, is obverse to the point of jail and prison.
“When you commit a crime and go to jail, you are paying for your crime in lost time of your life,” says Amy Albert, a lawyer who helps families in Jersey City, New Jersey, navigate the legal bureaucracy of reimbursement. “So to deny a family reimbursement despite the fact the [victim] had already served their time makes no sense. You’re punishing them twice.”
New York, however, has the lowest denial rates for contributory conduct, despite having more claims than most other states analyzed by NationSwell. Between 2010 and 2015, less than 2 percent of denials cited contributory conduct.
The state has a sliding scale for reimbursement when contributory conduct has been determined. The family of a person who trades gunfire on a New York street, for example, and then dies as a result would be ineligible for compensation. If that same person was involved in a bar fight, however, and traded insults but not punches, and then dies as a result of a beating, their family could get a small sum of money as opposed to nothing.
“The classic 100-percent conduct-contributing denial is where I point a gun at you, and you shoot me. I can’t claim to get compensation, because I caused you to shoot me,” says Elizabeth Cronin, director of New York’s Office of Victim Services.
“If a person is a known drug dealer and gets hit by a drunk driver, they’re still a victim. That has nothing to do with whether they’re a perpetrator in another kind of case,” she says. “It’s not fair to use that person’s history to eliminate their eligibility.”
RACE AS A FACTOR?
Many families interviewed by NationSwell allege that denials are happening primarily to families of color. But despite recent reporting, which anecdotally backs up that claim, NationSwell found no empirical evidence to support it.
A source at the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) — which oversees the Office of Victims’ Services — said that any perceived correlation is likely just a numbers game. For example, Philadelphia is the state’s largest city and also has the most homicides, which happen to primarily affect black men; a high number of compensation claims would logically result in a similarly high rate of denials within the group applying.
And Blystone, the VCAP manager for Pennsylvania, said that denials based on race are unlikely, as only half of all claimants opt to include their race on their application.
That logic aligns with NationSwell’s findings. According to county data in all six states analyzed, the largest percentage of denials are in counties with larger cities and higher crime rates, which would naturally result in more filed claims.
In Texas, for example, both Bexar and Dallas counties encompass two of the state’s largest cities: San Antonio and Dallas. In 2015, the two counties had a higher rate of claim denials than other counties in the state at 29 and 25 percent, respectively. But they also had more violent crime that year compared to Texas counties with smaller populations.
There is, however, a noticeable relationship NationSwell found between the proportion of nonwhite residents and the average percentage of reimbursement denials. Lafourche Parish in Louisiana, for example, had a 23 percent nonwhite population, according to the 2010 census, and a 6 percent denial rate for the years between 2013 and 2015. In the same time period, Orleans Parish, which includes New Orleans, had a 69 percent nonwhite population and a 16 percent denial rate.
This was a consistent finding in all six states examined, using both public documents and records requested by NationSwell.
To be clear, this does not prove race is a mitigating factor in deciding reimbursement claims, but it does raise eyebrows for people like Philadelphia civil rights lawyer Angus Love (no relation to Chantay Love of EMIR), who has worked on victims’ compensation cases with EMIR and is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. In his view, there’s simply too much of an anecdotal correlation between homicide reimbursement claims, black victims and the police who conclude that contributory conduct was in play.
“It seems to me that race is entering into the decision-making,” Love says. “I’ve seen too many articles about young black kids in the ghetto, and it’s simply assumed that they’re involved in illegal activities. To make a blanket response is a stereotype and not necessarily what the facts would dictate.”
But Capt. Sekou Kinebrew, commanding officer of the Philadelphia Police Department’s public affairs office, says homicide detectives have little to gain from assuming victims are involved in a crime when they are killed.
“You’re relying on the words of other people to solve a crime, and in the case of a homicide you rely on family cooperation. Why on earth would the detective do something to diminish that or sabotage their own efforts, especially when we know that the availability of [victims’ compensation] funds relies on this,” he tells NationSwell. “I just don’t see any benefit in a detective doing that.”
‘IN THE EYE OF THE SHITSTORM’
Regardless of fault, EMIR’s Love and Greene are actively trying to shift the narrative around homicide victims. That’s because they know firsthand how the bureaucracy of victims’ compensation, coupled with the acute trauma of losing a loved one, can affect a family.
In 1997, the two lost a brother and son, Emir Greene (from which their organization gets its name). His murder received front-page coverage in Philadelphia’s City Paper and launched the mother and daughter, along with Love’s sister, to take on the task of helping families that were going through the same process.
“One of the things we noticed immediately was families were not taking care of themselves,” says Love. “They forgot to eat, drink water, the basics. So we initially started as just trying to feed families.”
Though the murder rate in Philadelphia has gone down considerably since EMIR first formed, the number still hovers around 300 homicides a year, according to annual reports. EMIR responds to just about every one of them.
“Our first course of action is simple: Get families access to services, let them know we’re here and make sure they take one minute at a time and then 15 minutes at a time,” Love says.
When families call Love, which happens almost daily, she always ends the conversation with advice on self-care: breathing techniques, drinking enough water and eating enough food.
Over the past decade, EMIR has taken on more roles within Philadelphia, specifically by offering counseling and family services to children or parents. Their office has teen, children’s and family rooms where volunteers — almost all of whom have experienced a murder in their own families — offer support and lend a hand in working through trauma or grief.
The organization soon became seen as invaluable to the community — and to the police department.
“They are one of the first entities that touches families right in the wake of a tragedy. And they truly focus on the healing part,” says Kinebrew, who has worked side by side with EMIR on community-policing strategies. “They put themselves in the eye of the shitstorm.”
‘APPEAL, APPEAL AND APPEAL’
Beyond providing healing services, EMIR has advocated for victims’ rights for over a decade by helping families file reimbursement claims and pushing the state to remove the denial barrier for families touched by homicide.
“You have given the killer all the power in that situation, because not only have they taken away your loved one, but then [VCAP] legitimizes their death and victimizes you in the process,” Love argues.
Recently, the group successfully resolved a case with the help of Angus Love, the civil rights lawyer. In 2016, high school senior Zion Vaughan, 18, was gunned down near his home. The investigating officer wrote on the victims’ compensation claim filed by Zion’s grandfather, Thomas Vaughan, that the teen had been dealing drugs.
Vaughan was confused: How could they know if his grandson was selling drugs, when they hadn’t even found the person who killed him? How could they know he was doing something wrong, especially when he was shot in the back and could have been running away?
He refused to believe drugs were involved.
“I was shocked,” Vaughan says. “I can’t say that Zion didn’t do drugs, didn’t smoke reefer. But I know he wasn’t selling.”
Through appeals, Vaughan, with the help of EMIR, was able to get the decision reversed. This is uncommon in Pennsylvania, where only a handful of appeals has ever led to an administrative hearing and a reversal of an earlier decision, according to PCCD. Vaughan’s case, which determined that the police’s claim of drug involvement was unfounded and hearsay, was one of the first.
“It was such good news, because it’s the first time something like this has ever said that the police report should not have been used to deny Mr. Vaughan’s claim,” Love, the lawyer, says. “That’s a huge step for us.”
And it gives hope to the frustrated family members of victims, like Robinson, the mother whose son was fatally shot in Delaware, to keep on fighting. For families caught in a similar situation, she has a few words of advice.
“Do your research on why you were denied. Make sure you ask plenty of questions, and never give up,” she says. “Appeal, appeal and appeal.”
This story is the first in a multimedia series on states’ victims’ compensation practices. In the second installment, a NationSwell mini documentary further explores the issues families of victims face when applying for reimbursement. You can watch the video here.
Additional data reporting by Malorie Hughes. To read about how NationSwell found and queried the data for this story, visit our writer’s GitHub account, where you can also download the data sets.
A previous version of this story included incorrect population data for counties in Louisiana. We regret the error.