Paying for rape kits
I missed this last week, and reading it now I'm one part outraged and one part puzzled.
Victims of sexual assault are getting bills, rejection letters and pushy calls from bill collectors while a state crime victims' fund sits full of cash, Local 2 Investigates reported Thursday.
"I'm the victim, and yet here I am. I'm asked to pay this bill and my credit's going to get hurt," said a single mom from Houston.
She received bills marked, "delinquent," after she visited a hospital where police told her to have evidence gathered. Officers assured her she would not pay a dime for that rape kit to be handled.
"That was unreal," she said. "I never thought I'd be out anything for what I went through."
"It is set up legislatively so that the criminal justice system pays for whatever evidence collection occurs," said Kelly Young, with the Houston Area Women's Center, a rape crisis facility.
Police departments are reimbursed for up to $700 by the Texas Crime Victims' Compensation Fund, but many departments cover the bills if they exceed that.
After that happens, victims can apply for other costs associated with the rape kit hospital visits to be covered by the fund.
The Houston Police Department made one payment toward the single mother's hospital bill, but when she submitted the $1,847 worth of remaining bills to the Crime Victims' Compensation Fund, she received a denial letter, telling her that law enforcement should have paid.
"She's getting the run-around," said Young at the rape crisis center, which was not involved in her case.
"There may be lots of survivors who have this happen and we don't know because they don't know that they shouldn't be getting the bills," she said.
Well, that's a good question. Was there a screwup, on the part of either HPD or the hospital, or is this just how it goes and this particular woman happened to be the first one to get her story in the news? How we react to try to ensure that this never happens again depends on the answer to that.
Attorney General's spokesman Jerry Strickland said the crime victim fund is enforcing strict guidelines imposed by the legislature as to which bills are paid and which victims are sent a denial notice.
Otherwise, he said that fund could become "insolvent."
He said state law is clear that crime victims must exhaust all other potential funding sources, such as local police or their own health insurance.
"The legislature set it up that way," said Strickland.
When asked for a number of how many denial letters had been sent out to Texas rape victims in the past, Strickland did not have an answer after checking with his crime victims' compensation office workers.
He said the attorney general's office constantly trains hospitals and health care providers on how to help victims in getting reimbursed for their expenses.
Again, the question that comes to my mind here is, screwup or SOP? Is it the intent of the Legislature that it's the responsibility of the crime victim to do the paperwork to be reimbursed for any costs the local police department doesn't pick up? Or is it the case that it's up to the police departments and/or the hospitals to deal with it themselves and leave the victims out of it? One would hope that's what they had in mind when that state fund was created - after all, as Salon
puts it, we don't charge burglary victims for the cost of dusting for prints - and one imagines that if cornered, the vast majority of legislators would agree that that's how it should be. Perhaps that's a subject on which the AG could issue an opinion.
Where the outrage really comes is that if this is the way it's been all along, intended or not, it's too late for the Lege to take action to fix it. The least we can do, therefore, is to find out for sure whether or not this is something that needs a legislative fix or a procedural one. Whatever the case, the cost of solving and prosecuting the crime should not fall in any way on the person victimized by the crime. Thanks to Ginger for calling this to my attention.
Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 11, 2009 to Crime and Punishment
This has been a problem for some time and I cannot imagine any advocate anywhere in the country not knowing about it. That includes Ellen Cohen. I don't see where she has even broached the subject let alone offered a bill to correct what is an abominable situation. Too busy the past two legislative sessions with the "titty-bar tax" bill?
National Center for Victims of Crime has known about it but for some reason has done little about it.
As I understand it, not that I really do or that anyone else does, the AG's Office has "discretion" in the matter of payment/reimbursment despite the fact that VAWA funds are involved and no such discretion is allowed with regard to the use of the funds. And yet the Texas legislature took it upon itself to grant that discretion to the AG's Office.
In addition to this there are general questions about how the VAWA/VOCA Victims Assistance funds have actually been spent by the AG's Office. Maybe Ellen Cohen will ask for disclosure. And then maybe in 2011 Ellen Cohen will submit a bill to remove the "discretion" of the AG's Office. If she is still a member of the legislature.
"Turns out experts on sexual assault are all too familiar with the issue. "It's been a problem for a long time," says Ilse Knecht, deputy director of public policy at the National Center for Victims of Crime. "We've heard so many stories of victims paying for their exams, or not being able to and then creditors coming after them." In order to qualify for federal grants under the Violence Against Women Act, states have to assume the full out-of-pocket costs for forensic medical exams, as the rape kits are called. But according to a 2004 bulletin published by the NCVC, "[F]eedback from the field indicates that sexual assault victims are still being billed." Knecht says she's recently heard from caseworkers in Illinois, Georgia, and Arkansas reporting that rape victims continue to be charged for their forensic exams."
Every advocate in the country knew about this in 2004. Or should have known.