The help crime victims need can be as multifaceted as coordinating emergency intervention, shelter and legal protection for a violently abused mother and her children. It can be as simple as making sure someone has a few bucks for gas or a bus pass to get to court.
Service providers who assist crime victims around the state received good news this month: Indiana will have almost five times more to spend on programs than the state has been accustomed to receiving. Advocates hope to address underserved areas and are encouraging service providers to apply for grant money with innovative programs.
“There are a lot of services needed in the state of Indiana. Some of the higher-need services are things like mental health counseling for victims, legal advocacy, and emergency services,” said Jade Palin, director of victim services at the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute. “Lots of rural counties don’t have services.”
But Palin said there’s also significant need for basic emergency services – shelters, support and even clothing for people fleeing domestic violence, for instance.
The ICJI announced recently that Indiana will receive nearly $40 million for crime victim services to be distributed to agencies and organizations in two cycles this year. The sum towers above the approximately $8 million the program has typically received in years past. The deadline for grant applications for the first of two 2015 award cycles is July 31.
“The Criminal Justice Institute is always looking for creative, innovative ways to serve victims of crime,” said ICJI spokesman Adam Baker. “We want folks to be aware; they can come to us with ideas.”
Sharon Langlotz, assistant director of victim services at ICJI, pointed to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s Victims Assistance Unit as an example of an innovative program. The full-time, around-the-clock unit assists victims at crime scenes, offers support and emergency referrals during crises, and assists victims seeking compensation, redress and protection of their rights through the criminal justice process.
Grants from the ICJI partially fund IMPD’s victims unit. “Not many law-enforcement organizations have victims’ advocates that go out to the scene,” Langlotz said. “That’s the kind of program we would like to see replicated throughout the state. I’m sure it’s being done in many areas, and it’s just not formalized.”
Frequently, grant recipients are law enforcement agencies, prosecutor’s offices, qualifying state and local agencies, nonprofits, and organizations that provide legal aid, mental health counseling and advocacy for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, according to ICJI.
Langlotz said the needs vary from community to community. Some agencies may seek funding to furnish gas cards or arrange transportation for crime victims in need.
Under the federal Victims of Crime Act, programs are paid for with money collected through criminal fines, forfeited bonds, fees and assessments collected by U.S. attorney offices, federal courts and prisons. No money from taxpayer sources are used for the services. An increase in the funding cap raised the total funds distributed nationwide from about $328 million last year to about $2.3 billion for the 2015 fiscal year.
Raio Krishnayya, executive director of the Center for Victim and Human Rights in Indianapolis, has a staff of legal professionals, but he splits his time between overseeing the organization and directly providing legal services. He said the center is the only exclusively victim-focused legal services agency in Central Indiana.
Most of the group’s work focuses on assisting victims of domestic violence.
“Despite our successes, there are still too few civil attorneys available to provide low-cost or pro bono legal assistance,” Krishnayya said. “There are not enough attorneys capable of handling the full spectrum of legal issues that victims face.
“Very simply, the greatest need is easier or more affordable access to legal assistance, which directly correlates to access to justice,” he said, noting the need for low- or no-cost legal help is particularly pronounced in protection order and family law matters.
Krishnayya said if his organization is able to access a greater pool of funding, it could not only expand services, but also help to build functional community partnerships to serve victims.
“No single organization can address every need of a victim, which can include such other necessities as shelter or housing assistance, social services, employment services and the like,” he said.
Lauren Buczynski was referred to the center after repeated stalking incidents. “I had no idea about how to get a protective order or how to get an attorney,” she said. The suspect in her case is charged with stalking, two counts of intimidation and four courts of invasion of privacy for violating protective orders. She said without the center’s help, “I would still be hiding out at home freaking out.”
She said staff attorney Jessica Topor helped her gather evidence, organize notes, and let her know what to expect as her case progressed. “Her work was amazing,” Buczynski said. “I was as comfortable as I could be – I mean, in a situation like that.”
Topor said she’s glad to have a chance to help. “Lauren never asked for this,” she said. “None of my clients ever asked for what happened to them.”
The Office of Victims of Crime in Washington said the increased funding allows states to tailor programs to community needs, as long as they meet federal program guidelines.
“We’re hoping to get applications both from previous providers and also new providers that have not requested funding in the past,” Palin said. Emergency legal advocacy was encouraged last year, when ICJI funded 183 different victim assistance agencies statewide.
Palin and others were pleasantly surprised by the increased funding. “All states received large increases,” she said.
Those who work helping victims share a common value of wanting to give back to their communities, said Krishnayya, who started the organization seven years ago. He sees it as a way to “pay it forward” for the support he’s received from family, colleagues and mentors.
“It’s very tough financially, especially coming out of law school with large debt and the not-so-competitive incomes that are typically associated with public interest work,” Krishnayya explained.
But he considers himself fortunate to do what he does. “Although we often see the worst side of humanity on a near-daily basis, I find a lot of satisfaction in knowing that in some small way, I can be involved in the solution.”•