D.C. fund for crime victims highlights challenges of providing aid

By Susan Kinzie and Stephanie Lee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

After her food stamps were stolen and her son's head was smashed into a concrete wall, a 31-year-old District woman wound up in the same place many of the city's domestic violence victims land while they're struggling to get on their feet: a run-down motel.

She and five of her children stayed in a small room with peeling paint, bloodstains on the mattress and a rancid smell coming from some liquid in the closet.

In any given week, 40 to 70 women stay there, with the $100-a-night room fee paid for by the Crime Victims Compensation Fund.

The fund, run by the D.C. Superior Court since 1997, uses revenue from court fees to cover immediate needs such as shelter, medical treatment, counseling and funerals. Part of the money also goes to D.C. nonprofits that help crime victims.

But the motel housing provided by the court fund isn't safe, say officials with some of the nonprofits. They have been pushing for more money from the fund for the shelters they run and for other services and have asked the District to seize control of the fund. They are also requesting $4 million from Congress.

The motel rooms are safe, court officials say. They say that nonprofit groups are concerned about a drop-off in funding during the past few years, and that although those concerns are understandable, they take a back seat to the issue of how best to help all crime victims.

The debate highlights the challenges of providing help to some of the city's most desperate residents, and it shows how far those efforts have come -- and how far they have to go.

"Only a fraction of the need is being met," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), so the important thing is not to fight for control of the fund, he said, but to find more money for victims.

Splitting the money

A decade ago, millions of dollars in the fund were going unused, court officials said. Now, they say, money is getting to those for whom it's intended. But by many accounts, although the District has increased shelter capacity, there aren't enough beds in nonprofit shelters designed to protect domestic violence victims and allow them time to find permanent housing.

Still, said D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Lee Satterfield, the court has never heard significant criticism of its administration of the program -- mandated in the 1990s -- until funding for the nonprofits began to dwindle.

The court hears from many people grateful for a room at the motel, he said, and works to resolve problems quickly. Shelter costs account for 25 percent of the money spent by the fund each year, he said, and the court has not seen a comprehensive plan for how crime victims would be helped if the program were changed. If the court sent money to nonprofit groups and other programs instead of spending it on victims, it would lose substantial federal matching funds, Satterfield said.

The court didn't ask to take this on the fund, Satterfield said. In 1996, emergency legislation transferred control of the fund from the city to the court because of a backlog that meant most eligible crime victims weren't being helped.

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