City officials said Monday they will use nearly $25 million in an unspent crime victims assistance fund to provide a comprehensive aid network for victims of violent crime in the District.
The proposal calls for increasing emergency housing, improving counseling, instituting a 24-hour multilingual hotline and establishing a single office where services can be accessed.
The Crime Victims' Compensation Fund has been growing over two decades with cash from court fines and filing and other fees. Collected and held by the Superior Court, the money has been used to reimburse crime victims for medical costs, loss of wages and other immediate emergency needs.
But there's long been a surplus. In 2000, Congress threatened to take back $18 million the city had collected but never used. Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, new to the job as deputy mayor for public safety and justice, had rushed a plan for using the money for victims' services to Capitol Hill to meet a deadline, but the plan was rejected as too light on specifics.
In 2001, the city administration and Congress worked out an agreement after the city almost lost the money again because city officials failed to complete the necessary paperwork. The District finally got about $16 million in the fall of 2002.
This week, Kellems laid out a five-year budget for the money in a detailed report created in consultation with the city's social service agencies.
Trisha Gentle, who would become the citywide victim service coordinator if the D.C. Council approves the plan, said that the money offers the city "a tremendous opportunity" to set up a good program. The recommendations of local community service organizations that have been demanding changes for years were built into the report, Gentle said, and social services representatives will continue to offer advice.
Under its proposal, the city would continue supporting the Children's Advocacy Center, also known as Safe Shores, which works on criminal child abuse and neglect cases, with grants of $1.6 million through the end of fiscal 2005.
The city also proposes spending $1.5 million per year on the police department's family liaison specialist unit; the Latin American Youth Center's transitional living program; Survivors of Homicide; and the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing. That level of spending might change after fiscal year 2005, depending on how much money comes to the overall fund, Gentle said.
The proposed budget would direct $2.2 million through fiscal year 2007 for increased emergency bed space for victims of violent crime.
A similar amount is earmarked for a victims' service center, a one-stop shop that would house representatives from a number of jurisdictions or organizations. "The concept is to get services to victims without difficulty," Gentle said.
"Historically, the District of Columbia, like other jurisdictions, has had a bigger emphasis on offenders," said Kellems. But model programs in Denver and other cities showed that centralized services for people victimized by crimes "really seems to make a world of difference."
The proposal also foresees spending $1.8 million on pilot projects and the same amount on distribution of information about the program. Victims' advocates have long criticized the city for failing to notify victims of the availability of assistance.
The District has an agreement with Congress under which the city gets half of the surplus from the crime victim compensation fund each year and the other half stays with the court.
There's plenty of demand, victims' advocates said.
"Frankly, I think the city needs to make this part of its [normal] budget," said Lydia Watts, executive director of Women Empowered Against Violence. Most large cities pay for victim services through routine contracts or grants, she noted.
"D.C.'s an anomaly, at least locally, and it's getting off cheaply," Watts said. "The bulk of the work falls on organizations such as mine, which are fundraising from private sources."
But advocates sounded relieved that, after years of waiting, the city is nearly ready to start spending the money to help crime victims.
"It has been a long haul. For the money to be sitting there when there are victims sitting out in the community who need the money has been very frustrating," said Denise Snyder of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center.
"I'm actually very hopeful at this point. . . . We've definitely thought through some specific needs we have."