When Lisa Daniels’ son Darren Easterling was murdered, government agencies in Illinois offered only one thing: Police arrested Easterling’s killer and locked him up. But Daniels said what she really needed was money to bury her son and a way to get his children, her grandchildren, into therapy and grief counseling.
“I was unemployed at that time, so I was completely unprepared for something as serious as that,” Daniels said.
There is a program in Illinois, supported by federal dollars, that provides money to crime victims to pay for unexpected costs like medical care, mental health help, funerals, and the cost of missed work, but Daniels never got any of that money. A police officer told her she likely wouldn’t be approved for the program because her son was trying to rob someone during a drug deal when he was shot.
The officer was likely right about Daniels’ chances of getting compensation.
Illinois residents are among the least likely to apply for victim compensation in the country, according to a new report from a coalition of advocacy and service organizations. Victims face a range of barriers—from denials for services to long wait times to poor outreach. But at a time when Illinois and Chicago are scrambling to find resources to treat trauma and drive down crime, experts say compensation could be a powerful tool to leverage federal dollars to help.
The “innocent” victim
In the 1980s Congress passed the Victims of Crimes Act which established federal matching funds for states to provide help to victims and their families. But Illinois’ stringent restrictions exclude many needy victims and prevent the state from taking full advantage of the federal funds available.
For example, Illinois’ program requires victims to report most crimes within 72 hours and cooperate with police to qualify for compensation. But people are often afraid of retaliation or still reeling from their trauma. According to numbers obtained by WBEZ, since 2014 the state denied 991 people victim compensation because they didn’t cooperate with police.
The state denied another 773 victims because they “contributed” to their victimization, for example, by being involved in a crime like Daniels’ son.
John Maki, local and state government best practices director at the Alliance for Safety and Justice and author of the new report on victim compensation, said that the state is judging these claims using criminal-justice concepts such as guilt or innocence, which may not be appropriate for victim services.
“When someone shows up at the hospital, the doctor doesn’t … try to figure out do you deserve the service. They treat you first. They heal first … And I think victim services should be absolutely the same way,” Maki said.
The denials for reimbursement only partly account for the underutilization of the program. A bigger problem is that most victims, like Daniels, don’t even apply. In Illinois, only six out of every 100 serious violent crimes reported to law enforcement result in an application for compensation.
People “assume, and they’ve often been told, these sort of services don’t exist for you,” Maki said.
For Lisa Daniels, the program not only didn’t help her, it also was harmful. When police told her her son wouldn’t qualify, the rejection compounded the trauma of his murder.
“This entire experience, whether directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, set out to dehumanize the life of my child,” said Daniels.
She felt like they were saying he was unworthy of the dignity of a funeral. And by extension, they were also saying that she and her grandchildren were unworthy of the help they needed to heal.
Victim services and crime prevention
Offering support to people harmed by crime “isn’t just the right thing to do. It helps prevent crime,” Maki said.
Maki said we “know that most people in the criminal justice system have histories of victimization” and addressing their trauma could help.
Maki said research also shows providing for someone’s needs, can actually encourage cooperation with investigations into serious crimes like murder. But the report argues that the current practice of requiring cooperation to get services can actually backfire by decreasing the likelihood that people will share information.
“Reliance on coercing cooperation seems to reinforce the distrust many of the most victimized people already feel towards government,” the report said. But providing services, without judgments or unnecessary requirements, can repair trust.
Although not a panacea, focusing on victim’s needs can be an essential tool in fighting violence, Maki said. “All the research … indicates that when that’s the approach, people are more likely to cooperate, outcomes are better, costs go down.”
Trust, trauma and bureaucracy
Even when a person clearly qualifies as a victim in Illinois, they can still face barriers to accessing the fund. The program can be slow, complicated, and even traumatizing to navigate.
In 2016 Sharita Galloway descended into a deep depression and developed severe PTSD after her son Elijah Sims was fatally shot. She had a hard time going to parks or being out in some neighborhoods. She had trouble focusing, it was difficult to work her job as a nurse, and she took a leave. For a time, she was a patient in a mental hospital.
“I think it’s because I felt like my son got killed, anything can happen. I [felt] alert… all the time,” Galloway said.
But Galloway said the state refused to pay for her missed days of work because she’d shown signs of depression before her son was killed. The Illinois victim compensation fund did pay the expenses for her son’s funeral, but getting the money took two years.
These kinds of delays and denials make the program essentially useless for some survivors.
“A core problem is that the program assumes that applicants can cover essential services themselves and can wait long periods to find out whether they’ll be reimbursed,” reads the report.
Elena Calzada, Galloway’s victim advocate at the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, said Galloway’s experience is not uncommon.
“I know families who have to have their loved ones sitting in the morgue for weeks before they could even get them out of the morgue because they didn’t know how to pay for it,” Calzada said.
A pathway to change
The report makes a range of recommendations, like processing applications more quickly and changing the law so more survivors are eligible. The program is run by the Illinois Attorney General’s office and the Court of Claims.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul has spoken openly about the need to improve the program.
“I firmly believe that the extent to which we deal with survivors of violent crime, we can contribute to preventing such crime from reoccurring,” Raoul said.
Raoul said since taking office this year, he’s begun overturning unfair compensation denials. For example, his office had denied compensation in the case of a young man who was shot because he was playing craps, which was interpreted as “contributing” to his victimization. But Raoul said he knows his office needs to make bigger changes than just overturning individual cases.
“Making sure we have a … comprehensive office that meets the needs of crime victims throughout the state is not going to [happen] overnight,” he said.
Raoul said he has been meeting with community groups, examining potential legislative fixes, and talking with the Court of Claims about how to make the process more efficient. He also said he was looking at how to get the word out about the program.
“These resources are only as good as victims are aware that they exist in all communities.”
Lisa Daniels said she was fortunate: Her community helped pay for her son’s burial. She got the chance to eulogize him and talk about who he was, beyond the events surrounding his murder.
“And it was one of the most amazing, most powerful experiences that I can recall,” Daniels said.
Daniels now runs an organization in her son’s name and has become a prominent voice in the Illinois criminal justice world. But she said if she had not had that experience of memorializing her son, she’s not sure if those good things would have happened. And she wants others to get whatever they need to move forward, not because their loved one was perfect, but because when someone is hurt by violence, we should do what we can to help them heal.
Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @shannon_h