This story is the third piece in “Aftershocks,” A Series About Surviving Gun Violence In Chicago. It was originally published by The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering gun violence in America, in partnership with The Chicago Sun-Times and La Raza. Sign up for The Trace’s newsletters here.
CHICAGO — A few days after the Fourth of July in 2018, Zay Manning was shot outside his neighborhood corner store in Bronzeville, the one he grew up going to for a bottle of lemonade and a bag of hot fries. He was 19, and loved helping his younger brother produce music — picking out beats, tweaking the sound one bar at a time. The one bullet that hit nearly killed him.
During his hospital stay, police officers and doctors told him about the Illinois’ Crime Victim Compensation Program, which uses state and federal dollars to reimburse victims of violent crime and their families for injury-related expenses. Manning applied, hoping to recoup some of the costs of his medical bills, and replace clothing destroyed and bloodied in the shooting. He found the program difficult and confusing while also navigating back-to-back hospital visits.
“It was a lot of documentation, I didn’t really understand,” says Manning. “I got discouraged.”
More than a year after submitting his claim, Manning faces a similar situation as most of the program’s applicants.
He hasn’t gotten a single penny of compensation.
The nearly 50-year-old government program that’s supposed to help ease the blow of being a crime victim largely isn’t doing that, an investigation by The Trace has found.
Few people apply to the program. Even fewer end up getting financial relief. Those who do face long waits.
Using records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, The Trace analyzed nearly 15,000 claims processed with the state’s victim’s compensation program between 2015 and 2020. Fewer than four in 10 applicants got any reimbursement.
And that’s out of those who even applied. Many people aren’t even aware the program exists, The Trace found. In Chicago, just one application was filed for every 50 violent crimes, during the period reviewed.
The majority of claims were denied or categorized as “award no pay” — a designation that means someone technically is eligible to get the money but, in most cases, that an analyst hasn’t been able to verify all of the necessary details of the application.
To examine how the program is working, The Trace interviewed nearly 50 survivors, family members, researchers, advocates and government officials, and found that the problems stem in large measure from three factors:
- The strict eligibility criteria.
- Burdensome application requirements.
- And not nearly enough outreach from government agencies.
The program has a small staff, and advocates and researchers worry that the application process can re-traumatize victims by making them prove that they have suffered. Beyond that, it can take years for the state to decide whether to pay a claim, which in some cases leaves crime victims in debt for things like medical care for their injuries.
Victims’ needs spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, as gun violence in Illinois and across the country soared to historic levels alongside a rise in unemployment and housing insecurity.
“If the best thing we have is crime victim compensation, then we don’t have very much,” says John Maki, a director with the Alliance for Safety and Justice, and a longtime advocate of reforming the reimbursement program. “It’s a service with a lot of potential, but the potential is far, far from realized.”
Earlier this year, the Illinois Legislature passed a bill that ultimately will make more people eligible for compensation, and also raise the cap for reimbursement. Advocates say that the changes can’t come soon enough but could still leave big gaps in services to people the program reaches.
Sharrise Kimbro, a division chief in Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office — which runs the program with the Court of Claims — said the office could not answer for problems with victims compensation before Raoul took office in 2019. She instead pointed to changes that the office has instituted that might take years to be reflected in the data on the program’s success.
Flawed from the start
Every state has a program to compensate crime victims, and each operates differently. Under the federal Victims of Crime Act, or VOCA, Congress disperses millions each year to help fund such efforts.
A decades-old federal report on victim services shows the philosophy that influenced this approach, saying: “The innocent victims of crime have been overlooked, their pleas for justice have gone unheeded, and their wounds — personal, emotional, and financial — have gone unattended.”
When Illinois lawmakers passed the Crime Victim Compensation Act with bipartisan support in 1973, they made the state among the first to do so. A few years later, a report in the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal blasted the “inadequate draftsmanship” of the law, noting that few claims had been filed in the program’s first two years.
A 2019 report by 11 advocacy and anti-violence groups echoed this and pointed out that Illinois had one of the lowest application rates in the country.
Illinois’ victim compensation program has a roughly $6 million yearly budget, mostly funded by the state. To receive compensation from the state program, people have to be victims of a crime that happened in Illinois and must apply within two years of the incident. They must also have reported the crime to police and cooperated with law enforcement and the victim compensation program.
Family members, including spouses and children, can apply to cover related expenses that they paid for, as well. People have to spend their money before seeking reimbursement, and the program won’t reimburse what insurance covered.
Applicants can be found ineligible if the program’s staff determines they were hurt or killed while committing a crime or otherwise contributed in any way to their becoming a crime victim. And those who are on probation or in prison can’t be compensated until they’re released.
As of late June, the Attorney General’s Office — which vets the claims — had just over a dozen analysts who focus on processing the thousands of claims filed each year. They interview the victims, confirm expenses related to the injury, and gather reports from law enforcement to determine whether they qualify for assistance.
Once the analyst makes a recommendation, the application is sent to the Illinois Court of Claims, which rules on monetary claims against the state. If the application is approved, the state Comptroller’s Office issues a payment — usually by check.
There are multiple points at which applicants might be asked to provide more documentation. The analysts usually send these requests by mail, and applicants have 30 days to respond.
For survivors of violent crime like Manning, waiting for the analysts to make a decision can feel like peering into a black hole. They can’t go online to look up where their claim stands, as is done in Indiana and Tennessee. The Illinois process is largely done through the mail, unlike in some neighboring states that use phone and email.
Although the Attorney General’s Office is the key agency, four state agencies are involved in the application process in Illinois, rather than just one in some states.
A lag in payments
While the program’s overall numbers show how few people are getting compensated for their injuries, it’s hard to say who, exactly, benefits.
The Trace requested information on individual applicants’ demographics, but a ransomware attack compromised the Attorney General’s Office’s network in April. Reports to the federal government show that of Illinois applications that included the victim’s race, half were Black, and a smaller percentage were white or Latinx.
Raoul has said he first noticed problems with the victim compensation program about a decade ago, when he was a state senator.
“There was an inability to answer the question of, to what extent, were resources going to the most victimized communities,” Raoul said earlier this year. “There was a sense that there was a small likelihood that someone who was a Black or Brown male would qualify for resources. There were rules — written and unwritten — with regards to what would disqualify you from compensation.”
The agency under Raoul has relaxed some of the state’s strict rules for who qualifies, his office said. He also required analysts to undergo trauma-informed training, and hosted listening sessions on where to make improvements.
The changes his office recommended are reflected in a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that lawmakers passed earlier this year. The reforms broaden the rules on who can apply for victim compensation, increase the total possible reimbursement per person to $45,000, and extend the application deadline to five years after the date of the crime. The bill, which goes into effect early next year, also shifts more responsibilities to the Attorney General’s Office.
But expanding the cap doesn’t necessarily mean survivors will get more money. The average reimbursement under the program has been about $4,400, the analysis showed, far from the full amount of the current financial cap of $27,000.
Meanwhile, it has taken increasingly longer for analysts to begin reviewing claims, even though the number of applications has dropped. Since 2015, the wait time has grown from a few days, on average, to nearly 50 during the pandemic, as the analysts worked from home. Then, it has taken eight months, on average, to decide whether to approve any reimbursement.
“I’ve rarely seen a case that gets their funding in three to six months,” says Edwin Martinez, a mental health coordinator on the city’s Southwest Side.
Martinez likens the process to having to argue a case in court.
“You have to explain how this injury affected you,” he says. “You have to submit supporting documentation. That really depends on the stability [of an applicant’s living situation] and how informed that client is. Do you have your police report? Do you have your incident report?”
A lack of public awareness
In North Lawndale this summer, an elderly man, shot in 1981, spoke about how the bullet that hit him four decades ago remains lodged in his spine. He estimated his medical bills have come to about $80,000. He didn’t know that he might have been eligible to get reimbursement from the state to help cover that.
Down the street from him, another man, who’d been shot about a decade ago, also was surprised to learn the state might have helped pay the resulting bills.
For each, the deadline to apply for victim compensation has long passed.
Hospitals and police are required to inform victims about the possible compensation. But The Trace surveyed victims advocates and sampled people living on the South Side and the West Side and found that few know the program exists.
Only about 3,300 people apply each year. The largest number of applications has come from the Chicago neighborhoods that experience the most violence — majority-Black and Latinx communities, including North Lawndale, Little Village, Austin, West Lawn, Roseland, and Chatham. But overall, the percentage of crime victims seeking compensation was low. Since 2015, only about one application has been filed for every 50 violent crimes in the city.
Beyond awareness, applying can be difficult. Teyonna Lofton is still trying to grasp the process. She started looking into how to apply soon after she was shot last year, just days before her high school graduation, as the city erupted in riots after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd.
“I don’t understand how the application works,” she says. “I don’t know if I submitted it or not.”
She says she recently called the Attorney General’s Office’s helpline to confirm whether her application was submitted, but was told the information wasn’t available because of the ransomware attack.
Once someone does apply, the likelihood of being approved depends heavily on the type of crime. Reimbursements related to sexual offenses are the least likely to be approved, compared to battery and murders, The Trace found.
The low rate of approvals isn’t surprising for Mariá Balata, a director with Resilience, a support organization for sexual assault survivors. Balata says her team tries to set realistic expectations with survivors about the program’s limitations.
“It’s just become such a convoluted system for us to navigate with victims,” she says. “Typically, it’s the bureaucracy of it that makes it feel like it’s inaccessible.”
The reason people end up not getting any compensation often is because an analyst couldn’t “substantiate” a crime victim’s claim.
Claims are more likely to end up being designated “award no pay” than being denied outright. This means that thousands of applicants are still eligible to receive financial support — but might not realize that.
Susan Catania is one of the last living sponsors of Illinois’ law. Nearly 50 years later, the former Republican state representative from Chicago says: “I am really appalled that not enough people know about it and use it. Plowing through the bureaucracy has to be excruciating. A victim of any crime does not need that added as a burden — especially if ultimately they’re going to be told there’s some bureaucratic reason they’re not going to get any money.”
Covering funeral payments
One recent morning in Austin, Nhemya Ward sat in a lime-green conference room at the Johnson Funeral Home as she went through a copy of the crime victim compensation application — a five-page document that has more than 100 information fields. The Attorney General’s Office made the application available online last year, but Ward uses the paper version.
Part of Ward’s job is helping the funeral home’s clients fill out the forms. She says most of them can’t afford the unexpected costs of burials resulting from violent crimes.
Since 2015, about a quarter of all claims to the state program have been to cover funeral costs. The state’s long lags in processing applications makes Ward’s job harder. She says her funeral home requires families to pay for half of the expenses upfront. The funeral home defers the remaining costs in hopes that the family’s reimbursement request is approved.
If it isn’t, the survivors must find another way to come up with the money.
“The reason why we do the 50/50 split is because crime victim compensation does not pay for up to two years,” Ward says. “Right now, our 2018 crime victims files are just being reviewed.”
As of early February, The Trace analysis found there were at least 14 outstanding claims from 2018 that were filed within the neighborhood Ward’s funeral home is in.
To combat the uncertainty, Johnson and other funeral homes vet potential applications customers might file. “I had one family who wanted to apply,” Ward says. “I asked them the details of what happened.”
A mother told Ward her son “went to defend [a relative], and, in the midst of that, he was shot and killed. That unfortunately is a risky case to take because he went to the person’s house.”
Ward says that, based on her experience, the Attorney General’s Office probably would view the man’s actions as “contributory misconduct,” meaning his own actions played a role in his death. Since 2015, more than 600 claims have been denied for this reason.
Ward’s funeral home began capping the number of clients this year that it will take who rely on crime victim compensation.
“It’s just not financially sound,” she says.
‘Blessing in disguise’
Zay Manning, now 23, got a lot further than most applicants — though until recently, he wasn’t aware of just how far.
Last year, weeks before the coronavirus pandemic hit Chicago, he got a letter from the Attorney General’s Office asking for more information about his medical bills.
“They wanted everything, like literally everything,” he says. “I’m going in and out of hospitals as I’m still healing, taking out staples and stitches. They wanted me to keep the paperwork from the time I was having surgery and basically my whole situation up until when they released me.”
Manning was juggling dozens of hospital visits and learned how to walk again after his injuries. He says he struggled to reach people to get the information he needed. “I didn’t get back to [the Attorney General’s Office] in enough time,” he says.
The process left him frustrated and disillusioned. “It’s basically a hit or miss,” he says.
As a result, for nearly half a year, Manning and his mother, Natalie, believed his application had been denied. It wasn’t until a reporter searched for his claim and found that the Attorney General’s Office had marked his case as an “award no pay” that they realized his application still has a chance. He just needs to turn in more paperwork.
“It’s just confusing,” Natalie Manning says. “They need to have better communication.”
Much of Zay Manning’s life since the shooting has focused on moving beyond the trauma.
He still lives in Bronzeville where he grew up, a historic Black neighborhood just a short drive from downtown and near the shores of Lake Michigan. As part of his recovery, he started working for ConTextos, a nonprofit organization that helps young people in Chicago process trauma through storytelling.
Now the father of an almost 1-year-old baby with chubby cheeks and enough hair for bantu knots, the opportunity to receive the reimbursement offers a sliver of hope.
“I’m kind of shocked,” he says. “I was just looking past it and to forget. The fact that I might be able to obtain it — I feel like that’s a blessing in disguise.”
This story was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 Data Fellowship.