Help runs out for victims of crime

December 08, 1991|By Suzanne Wooton

Eric Smith had just stepped off the bus, returning from a shopping trip at Mondawmin Mall one evening last spring. Suddenly, he was approached by a man who ordered him to step into a wooded area. The assailant pulled a gun and demanded Eric's gold chains, bracelet and a small bag with credit cards and cash. Then, he shot him in the face.

Mr. Smith, a 19-year-old graduate of Milford Mill High School, managed to stumble to his home in Randallstown a block and a half away. He was flown to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he remained for nearly a month. Since then, he has undergone surgery several times and has been unable to return to his job as a baker at an area restaurant.

His medical bills have soared to more than $50,000. The state's Medicaid program has paid $31,000, but Eric and his family are left with the rest. Now, they have nowhere to turn for help -- the state board that compensated crime victims or their families with cash payments has shut down because of budget cuts.

"I know times are hard and they have to cut back, but why something like this?" asked Mr. Smith. "We're not a rich family. We have just been getting by, and now we've got these hospital bills that have to be paid."

Throughout the state, hundreds of crime victims like Eric and their families are left searching for ways to support themselves, pay medical bills and even bury their dead. In Baltimore alone, the Maryland Criminal Injuries Compensation Board board pays funeral expenses for 40 percent of the city's murder victims.

"Elimination of the compensation program is devastating," said Sandra Stolker, who victim's assistance program in the Baltimore County state's attorney's office. "It is always the payer of last resort. . . . These are good citizens who have no resources."

In an era of tight budgets nationwide, Maryland is the only state to have eliminated benefits for victims. Every state except Maine has a victims compensation system that pays for medical bills, lost wages and other expenses.

Maryland's compensation board, one of the first in the country, was set up in 1968 to make payments to the families of homicide victims or people who were injured as a result of a criminal act or in efforts to prevent a crime or capture someone committing one. Last year, the state legislature also made drunken-driving victims eligible for payments.

But last month, the board notified about 400 victims with pending applications -- along with those who have been receiving monthly benefits -- that it had no more money.

That means 25-year-old Lisa Justice of Elkridge won't get help paying the bills that accumulated after her face was crushed by an intoxicated assailant at a Labor Day cookout and she was left unable to work.

It means a Capitol Heights mother can't get money for a grave marker for her teen-age son who was shot in August.

It means a 68-year-old Glen Burnie woman who was raped last summer still has no way to pay a dentist $2,500 for fixing teeth that were broken during the assault. And she won't get reimbursed for replacing her glasses, which the rapist threw into the woods.

"It just seems like everything is done for the criminal and nothing for the victim," said the woman, who got a recent letter from the board saying it had no money even to process her application. "The world's so stinking bad, and now this is gone," she said.

Grants to victims -- as lump sums or monthly benefits -- were awarded only after other resources, such as insurance or disability benefits, were exhausted. Since 1968, the board has paid out $25.1 million to 11,723 people. The average grant is $5,438, but some have been as high as $45,000.

The board has run short of money and faced serious backlogs before. But in recent years, its funding levels and efficiency had improved considerably. During 1991, it evaluated more than 900 new claims and made 403 awards totaling $2.5 million.

Because the board is mandated by law, the office will continue accepting applications, even though it has no money. The shutdown is expected to result in the loss of about $800,000 in matching federal funds that came from fines and penalties imposed on criminals.

Victims' rights groups in Maryland are expected to renew their efforts to fund Maryland's compensation board with more predictable revenues, such as money from criminal penalties and fines, rather than relying on the state's general tax revenues to help its crime victims.

Politicians predict the board ultimately will be funded again, but victims who have been receiving monthly payments wonder how long they can hold out.

"It's like losing my home. I've depended on them to help me so much," said Andrelyia Keys, a 38-year-old Baltimore woman whose legs were paralyzed when a burglar shot her at her home.

In 1975, Ms. Keys was awarded $45,000 by the compensation board. Since then, she has received money to pay for medical supplies and doctors' bills. She has supported herself by working as a switchboard operator at a local insurance company. But the $315 she takes home every two weeks isn't enough to cover medical expenses.

"The board was there when I needed them," she said. "I don't know what to do now."

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