Families of victims question criteria for crime funds
Jennifer Williams remembers desperately searching for her 15-year-old grandson, Pierre, after shots were fired during a squabble on a neighborhood basketball court in April 2015.
She said he and another teen were hit while playing near Warren and Livernois in Detroit, an area she calls “dead man’s alley.” Pierre, whom she was raising, was killed.
“I saw the kids running,” Williams said, recalling how she drove through her neighborhood looking for him. “I kept saying, ‘Where’s Pierre? Where’s Pierre?’ ”
The grief was compounded by financial woes. Williams said she had a small life insurance policy through her job to bury her grandson, but $14,000 in funeral and burial costs consumed most of the proceeds.
Williams, who also was suffering from late-stage colorectal cancer, sought help from a state fund created to help compensate crime victims, but was denied because of her insurance policy.
“(The state) doesn’t care that our kids are being slaughtered,” Williams said. “I can guarantee you that the majority of (Detroit residents) got nothing. They pay everybody but us. Who has the worst mass murders? Who is it happening to?”
Survivors such as Williams who have been turned down for aid are pushing for changes in how the state disburses money from the Crime Victims Compensation Fund.
The women, who are members of the group Mothers of Murdered Children, argue that crime victims and family members deal with injuries, emotional trauma and lost income and shouldn’t be penalized for having insurance or other assets.
They also want to see the deadline relaxed so crime victims or their surviving loved ones have longer than a year to apply and receive funds.
James McCurtis, director of Crime Victim Services at the Michigan Department of Community Health, said the fund is limited by state law in awarding money to crime victims but defended its practices as fair.
“We have to consider all of our citizens based on the (law),” he said.
Starting in October, the commission is forming a task force of 20-25 individuals to review the legislation governing the fund. The panel is expected to present recommendations to the commission by the end of January.
January and will look at ways to “enhance and improve services for victims of crime,” he said.
State officials say the crime victims fund was established as a “payer of last resort” to help victims and survivors who have few or no financial options.
The fund is used to pay for funerals, lost wages, medical costs, rehabilitation services, crime scene cleanup and grief counseling.
The maximum payout to a crime victim or survivor is $25,000. The program has paid out over $98 million in more than 37,660 awards since the program was organized in the mid-1970s.
The fund is among four programs administered through the Crime Victims Services Commission. Funding for the program comes from fees assessed against defendants convicted of violent crimes.
Bob Wheaton, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said the deadline for applying for funds can be waived for “good cause.” Examples include a victim or survivor being unaware of the program or believing that restitution would cover expenses resulting from a crime.
Officials consider a number of factors, including whether the victim had insurance, the amount of medical bills and funeral costs, McCurtis said.
“Some cases cost more. It’s on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “In general, the numbers of (applications) have decreased.”
From 2013 to 2015, the most recent year for which data are available, the number of claims fell by a third, from 1,563 to 1,053. The average award, meanwhile, dropped from $6,964 to $2,190.
McCurtis said there are a “variety of reasons” for the downward trend.
“The main reason is that more people have insurance under the Affordable Care Act and the Healthy Michigan Plan that provides coverage to more than 600,000 Michiganders,” he said.
Rita Jolly, whose application for aid was denied after her 16-year-old son was shot to death four years ago in Detroit, said insurance shouldn’t be a factor in whether crime victims or survivors get help from the state fund.
“They didn’t compensate me for anything,” she said. “They just denied me, period. A mother who lost a child becomes a victim also. The (issue) of insurance shouldn’t matter.”
Terry Jones Jr. was shot four times in the back on the playground of Burns Elementary by someone he had considered a friend, Jolly said.
“He was trying to get away,” said Jolly, who moved to Southfield after her son was killed.
Three years later, Jolly’s 25-year-old daughter, Shalita Hunter, was murdered outside a male acquaintance’s house in Pontiac on May 13, 2016.
She said she didn’t consider the crime victims fund because of being turned away three years earlier. Hunter’s murder remains unsolved.
“I didn’t even waste my time,” Jolly said. “It seems like they pick and choose who they want to help. It seems like they don’t help all victims.”
For others, however, the crime victims fund has been helpful.
Rose Ford, who also lost a child to violence, said her experience with the fund was far different than that of Williams and Jolly.
Ford’s 20-year-old son Darryle Miller Jr. was shot to death outside a downtown Detroit nightclub in August 2010 over an expensive pair of sunglasses he was sporting that night.
“My son was about to give the glasses to the guy when my son’s friends (and her son) took off running and the (gunman) started running after him,” Ford said.
About a year after her son’s death, the fund paid the $5,000 balance owed for her son’s funeral, said Ford, who works as an operating room scheduler at a hospital.
“I was truly happy,” she said. “I was already devastated about losing my only son. Bills were piling up. It was such a relief and a weight off me. I didn’t know where I would get the money.”
Patricia Morton also received benefits to pay the remaining costs of a funeral and cremation for her 43-year-old son, Marlin L. Morton, who was murdered March 19, 2016, by two friends “who believed he had money,” his mother said.
Marlin Morton had served a decade behind bars for marijuana distribution and was out of prison for three months when he was shot in a van in the parking lot of a Coney Island restaurant on Detroit’s west side.
“My son didn’t have any money,” said Morton. “He only had $13 in his pocket.”
She applied to the crime victims fund and received $2,500, which finished paying off her son’s funeral costs and then gave $1,300 to her grandson, the child of her murdered son, to help with college costs. “It came in handy,” said Morton about the money. “It really helped me out.”
Karen Hall, director of victims services for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, said the fund “is a lifeline for those who have experienced loss.”
“The funds allow crime victims to concentrate on their recovery, and not their finances,” she said.
For more information log on to:
http://www.michigan.gov/mdhhs or call (877) 251-7373.