This is another installment in The Birmingham Times/AL.com joint series “Beyond the Violence: What can be done to address Birmingham’s rising homicide rate.” Sign up for the newsletter here.
Family members of crime victims and others gathered in the lobby of the Alabama Crime Victims Compensation Commission Friday in Montgomery to seek answers about slow responses to requests for financial help.
Karen Nathan of St. Clair County, whose son Stanley Ray Hopson Jr., 36, was murdered in his Birmingham apartment in May 2021, was among those expressing her frustrations. Nathan is seeking reimbursement for funeral expenses, one of the costs the commission can help pay. Nathan said she sent a document the commission requested but could not get confirmation that they got it. Two months later, she got a letter requesting the same document.
“You call me and ask me to call you back and email you,” Nathan said, describing her difficulties in communicating with the commission. “And I email you back. Could you not just address the email or make a phone call back? I call you back to answer whatever it is you were asking me for. What I wanted was a verification that you actually got what I sent you.”
Nathan is part of the organization What About Us, a nonprofit founded by Sheree Kennon of Birmingham, who also lost her son to gun violence. Kennon joined Nathan and about a dozen others at the commission today, along with Muaath Al-Khattab of the organization Faith in Action Alabama. Al-Khattab said he has been trying help crime victims learn how to get assistance from the commission for more than a year.
Commission Interim Director Kim Martin spoke to the group in the commission’s lobby and said the agency is severely understaffed because of a decline in funding.
“I’m sorry that some of y’all have experienced that,” Martin said. “Everyone deserves an answer and a timely answer on their claims. And that is important to us. We’re just unfortunately in a situation where we are very overwhelmed.”
The Legislature created the commission in 1984 to help lessen the financial burden victims face as a result of violent crimes. The commission is funded by fines, fees, and restitution from criminal cases and a federal grant.
“When the commission was founded in 1984, I think that was a very good model and it worked very well for a time,” Martin said. “But our funding has decreased so dramatically over the past 10 years. It is nearly half of what it was 10 years ago. And our staff has decreased as funding has decreased. But unfortunately crime and the people who need help have not decreased.”
Martin said the commission had six claims specialists who handle hundreds of claims each.
“They care deeply about what they’re doing and they care about y’all,” Martin said. “But they are in a very bad spot. And I know that y’all are in an even worse spot. And y’all need help and you need your answers. And I’m very sorry that y’all haven’t seen that.”
Martin told the group she would work to set up meetings with the commission staff to hear about their cases. Three in the group had filed claims they wanted to check on. Three more wanted to file new claims. . Martin said the meetings would have to be done individually because the claims process is confidential.
Any person who is an innocent victim of a crime and who received an injury or who is next-of-kin of a victim who died from a violent crime can file a claim. The claim must be filed within a year of the crime, with some exceptions, and the crime must have been reported to police within 72 hours of the incident. The victim must fully cooperate with law enforcement.
Claims can cover medical and psychiatric care, work loss due to the crime, funeral expenses, and rehabilitation of the victim. The commission pays only expenses that are not covered by insurance or some other source. The commission staff investigates the claims to determine eligibility. The maximum award is $15,000.
Al-Khattab, organizer of Faith in Action, said he appreciated Martin’s explanation to the group today but said the commission has to do better. Even if the process is going to be slow, Al-Khattab said claimants need acknowledgement that their requests are in the pipeline.
“Because they’re a state agency people at least deserve a response,” Al-Khattab said. “Not to get a response at all, I think it’s unacceptable. I’ve heard from some of the advocates who have dealt with some of the families that they hadn’t heard anything for three to six months. Or just no response at all. Not even, ‘Hey, we received your application, we’re working on it.’ Just nothing.”
Interim Director Martin said cause of the decline in funding from court costs, fines, and fees is unclear.
“I don’t think we can really pinpoint what the cause is right now and it’s likely kind of a perfect storm situation,” Martin said. “There’s probably multiple reasons the funding has declined so significantly.”
Martin said believes there is potential for additional funding that could result in better services for the victims. The legislative session begins March 7.
“I know the Legislature and the governor are certainly compassionate people and I feel that they are concerned about crime victims and the situation that they’re in and I’m very hopeful that we will be able to work with them to get some additional funding so that we can help crime victims in the timely way that they deserve,” Martin said. “Because they absolutely deserve to have their claims processed in a reasonable amount of time and get the assistance when it will be impactful.”
Nathan, mother of Stanley Ray Hopson, said her son was a caring person who left behind two teenage daughters and a grandchild.
“He would help anybody that he could,” Nathan said. “The girls are the most impacted from losing their father.”
Related: Moms find strength, love as they grieve children lost to gun violence