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RI victims relief fund running out of money, domestic violence calls remain high

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When Kristi DiCenzo’s abuser assaulted her in 2012, her face was so badly damaged she could hardly breathe through her nose, which had been pushed over into her right cheek.

The damage was so severe she could hardly sleep at night, and it challenged her ability to work effectively as a nurse, which requires constant face-to-face interactions.

“You don’t want patients scared of you,” DiCenzo said. “I’m not a vain person, but you don’t want to scare someone with scars.”

Her insurance wouldn’t cover the $60,000 reconstructive surgery needed to put her face back together, so she turned to a little-known victim relief fund called the Crime Victim Compensation Program.  

“It helped me pay $60,000 to breathe,” DiCenzo said. “In all, it took me about two to three years, but I was able to reestablish myself back into my community … and not have to worry whether I would be able to provide for my family.”

DiCenzo has since become a member of Sisters Overcoming Abusive Relationships, or SOAR, a task force of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She’s now trying to draw attention to the fact that the relief program — which has helped hundreds of domestic violence victims — could run out of money within a year.

“This is one area where we can’t fall short,” she said during an interview with Target 12.

The program, first created in 1972, was designed to help victims of crime pay for related costs, including medical bills, mental health treatment and funerals. Beginning in 2013, the program started covering the cost of relocating domestic violence victims away from their abusers, which has since helped 752 Rhode Islanders, according to data provided by the state.

The program is largely funded by court fees charged to offenders who are convicted or plead nolo contendere to violent crimes. But those fees started to decline relatively quickly beginning in 2017 after state lawmakers enacted the Justice Reinvestment Act, which in part recategorized several crimes to become lesser charges.

Fewer violent crimes translated to fewer fees to fund the program, resulting in a downward trend exacerbated by the fact that the federal government matches 60% of claims.

“We have this downward spiral,” General Treasurer Seth Magaziner told Target 12. “Because the state revenue is going down each year, the federal match goes down each year, so the primary source and the federal funds have both been decline for years.”

The program paid out more than $800,000 in claims during fiscal year 2014-15 compared to just $424,000 last fiscal year, and the overall decline totaled about $700,000 over the six years when accounting for the corresponding loss in federal funds, according to Magainzer, who oversees the program.  

The decline now appears to be accelerating because of the pandemic, as courts have vastly scaled back proceedings in accordance with public health safety guidelines since March. As a result, the program received just $16,552 in court fees during April compared to $58,465 in March.

The April money represented a roughly 72% decline compared to the same month a year earlier, according to data provided by the general treasurer’s office. And the outlook isn’t promising.

“If nothing is done, the program could run out of money within the next eight to ten months,” Magaziner said. “This is a very troubling situation and we need the state to step up and put some additional funding into this program to help Rhode Islanders who are victims of crime.”

Magaziner, DiCenzo and Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence executive director Tonya Harris are calling on the legislature to allocate $350,000 in general revenue to help keep the program afloat.

The coalition on Wednesday reported calls for domestic violence services soared and have remained high during the pandemic. In June, the nonprofit’s helplines and hotlines received 42% more calls than the same month last year, according to the group.

“We have collectively been facing many challenges since 2020 began, and the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified so many community needs that directly affect victims of domestic violence and their families in Rhode Island,” Harris said in a statement. “As the state is gradually reopening in phases, the demand for services has remained.”

The allocation is currently under consideration, and the House Finance Committee held a hearing on the matter on Tuesday. The request comes as lawmakers are grappling with widespread budget programs, currently operating without an enacted budget for the current fiscal year that started July 1.

State leaders have decided instead to wait to see if Congress will pass a second coronavirus spending package, which could include money to help states across the country shore up budget holes.

“Depending on what Congress does, the state could have a billion-dollar deficit or a billion-dollar surplus, or somewhere in between,” said Magaziner, who acknowledged that no federal relief could mean funding problems for the victim relief fund and many other programs.

“If Congress does not come through with more funding for the state, then not only this program, but programs across state government, are going to have dire financial problems,” he added. “But if Congress does come through with additional funding, my hope is that shoring up this program will be one of the priorities.”

DiCenzo is urging lawmakers to fund the program no matter what, pointing out that domestic violence will happen with or without the money, which unabated could grow into bigger problems down the road.

“We need to find a way to get the money,” DiCenzo said. “If we don’t deal with the problem now, it’s only going to get worse in the future.”  

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is an investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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