Sexual assault victims could access only a fraction of the public money other crime victims are entitled to receive for initial medical expenses under a proposed regulation Louisiana’s Crime Victims Reparations Board is supposed to vote on April 11.
The draft rule caps reimbursements on early medical expenses for victims of sex-related offenses at $1,000, though all other crime victims would be entitled to as much as $15,000.
The proposition has outraged advocates for crime victims, who say the policy is discriminatory.
“Why should survivors of sexual assault be treated as another class than other crime survivors?” said Morgan Lamandre, president and CEO of Sexual Trauma Awareness & Response, which provides support to victims of sexual assault.
The board staff has said it is willing to change the language before the board votes on the rule, though it’s still unclear what impact new wording would have.
Board staff said the cap on sexual assault victim compensation is a result of a restrictive Louisiana statute that is out of the board’s control. It would take a law change – which only legislators and the governor can do – to alter it, they said.
Crime victim advocates say the staff is misinterpreting the statute.
The disagreement is the latest in a months-long battle between advocates and board staff over access to the public money meant to help people after they are violated.
“We’ve been told over and over again that our opinions don’t really matter,” said Katie Hunter-Lowrey, who leads Louisiana Survivors for Reform, an organization for crime victims who support a criminal justice system overhaul.
Advocates scored a victory last year when lawmakers passed a new law that granted more flexibility and bigger awards out of Louisiana’s reparations fund. But the board hasn’t updated the corresponding state regulations yet, so many of those changes haven’t been implemented.
Reasons for that delay have shifted over the past several months. In September, the board’s top staff member, Bob Wertz, warned the changes might significantly drain the crime victims fund. Then, in an interview earlier this month, Wertz said “money is not an issue” and has nothing to do with the proposed cap on compensation for sexual assault victims.
Instead, Wertz said a 2015 law aimed at shielding sexual assault victims from receiving large medical bills after forensic medical examinations — commonly referred to as rape kit exams — inadvertently capped the amount of money victims could obtain.
The law, according to Wertz, only allows sexual assault victims to be reimbursed for up to a $1,000 in medical expenses beyond a forensic medical exam during an initial hospital visit, though victims could apply for more compensation for subsequent medical appointments.
It’s a distinction that other crime victims don’t have to make. They can apply for reimbursement for up to $15,000 worth of their medical bills, whether those expenses were incurred during an initial visit or over several medical appointments.
The board also hasn’t imposed an $1,000 cap for most of eight years the law has been in place, Lamandre said.
“Given that for years, you and the board have not interpreted the provision to mean you could only pay up to $1,000, and you had paid thousands and thousands of dollars ancillary to the [forensic medical exam], I believe our interpretation is correct,” Lamandre wrote to Wertz in an email sent March 4.
“It would be absurd to limit the medical expense reimbursement for a sexual assault survivor simply because they also received a [rape kit exam],” she wrote.
Advocates and board staff have also clashed over what role mental health and social workers are supposed to play in victim relief awards.
A major component of the crime victims fund overhaul that passed last year allows social workers and licensed mental health counselors to vouch for a victim on a state application for victim support funding. Previously, only crime victims who reported to law enforcement could access that money.
Wertz and board members have complained that loosening these standards creates a conflict of interest for mental health professionals.
A counselor, for example, shouldn’t be able to certify a crime victim to access state funds for therapy sessions if the counselor also conducts the treatment, Wertz said. It could create a situation wherein a counselor only certifies crime victims in order to access state payments for their services.
Survivor advocates counter that it is cumbersome for a crime victim to find one therapist to conduct an evaluation for a funding application, and then a separate counselor to administer any treatment that gets approved.
The board also contracts with a mental health consultant to evaluate its funding requests for mental health services, and the consultant should be able to flag any inappropriate treatment, according to advocates.
This ongoing disagreement has culminated in a fight over the role of board member Amanda Tonkovich, one of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ appointees from the New Orleans area.
Tonkovich, a social worker who specializes in treatment for trauma survivors, has frequently sided with the advocates against Wertz and other board members.
Earlier this year, after clashes with colleagues over the board’s proposed rules, Tonkovich was removed as board chair.
“She allowed a couple of meetings to get out of control,” Wertz said in an interview earlier this month.
At those meetings, crime victim advocates repeatedly complained about a lack of transparency from the board. They alleged the board was breaking state laws that require board business to be conducted out in the open. Tonkovich was sympathetic to the advocates’ concerns.
In response, Wertz hired a law enforcement officer to provide security at board meetings so members could feel more at ease.
At Wertz’s request, the board also voted this month to seek an opinion from the Louisiana Board of Ethics about Tonkovich.
Tonkovich sees three clients who use state crime victims’ funds to pay for their sessions with her. Wertz said board members worry those payments create an ethical dilemma.
In an interview, Tonkovich said she has recused herself the two times her own clients’ requests for funding have come before the board for a vote.
She also asked Wertz and the attorney general’s office in advance for guidance on how to handle her compensation. Tonkovich shared an email exchange she had with Wertz and an attorney general staff member last April about whether her work with those patients would create a problem.
In an email, the attorney general’s office said it wasn’t necessary for her to seek an ethics opinion as long as she didn’t vote on the funding that went to her practice.
“I think that this is straight-forward and simply recusing yourself resolves the issue without anything further,” Assistant AG David Jeddie Smith wrote to Tonkovich and Wertz.
“If you have further concern, however, you can contact the La. Department of Ethics. They provide formal opinions if requested, though that may take some time to obtain,” Smith added.
Crime victim advocates have become so frustrated with Wertz and most members of the board that they have started lobbying the legislature to move the crime victim reparations out from under the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, which oversees the crime victims board.
They said it might be more appropriate for the Louisiana Department of Health to handle reparations because the resources are often used for medical care and mental health services.
Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: email@example.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.
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