SACRAMENTO — The state's $40-million crime victim restitution program is being badly mismanaged, marred by late payments, overpayments and contradictory policies, a Senate subcommittee was told Thursday.
Victims, lawyers and therapists told a panel of lawmakers that the Crime Victims' Restitutions Program takes up to a year and even longer to make medical and other payments required by law.
Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Senate judiciary subcommittee on victims' rights, complained that the program "is re-victimizing crime victims."
A number of people who testified during a daylong hearing in the Capitol bolstered that claim.
Suzanne Baxter, a Sacramento psychotherapist, said she had stopped accepting patients who had applied for money under the state program because payments were so slow in coming. She said that she had to wait as long as 16 months for payments, and when the money arrived it was often only a fraction of the bill.
Others testified that the state's policy was uneven and often arbitrary in deciding who would be accepted into the program, with state officials sometimes rejecting cases because they thought the victims could have done more to avoid the crime.
Alex Vargas of the Los Angeles city attorney's Victim-Witness Center, said, "We feel there are cases that are very valid that are being denied."
He cited, for example, the rejection of claims by victims of hit-and-run and child abuse crimes because there were no prosecutions.
Eduardo Escobar, a therapist in Los Angeles who treats child abuse victims, said he is owed $48,000 for sessions with 22 clients. He said the "inefficient, lengthy process . . . exacerbates (the victims') helplessness."
Torres said the state Board of Control, which administers the program, now has a backlog of 10,000 cases, with an average delay of 10 months in processing the claims. State law requires that claims be processed within 90 days.
While many are not being paid, others have been either illegally taking money from the program or receiving overpayments, witnesses testified. Earlier this month, a confidential audit by the Board of Control showed that the program lost $750,000 because of overpayments or payments of claims that could not be substantiated. One state employee has been prosecuted for taking kickbacks for filing false claims.
Torres blamed the problem in part on "lax procedures."
The lawmaker said he was "angry" and "frustrated" that the program, created in 1965, was in such disarray.
Two years ago, Torres' committee held similar hearings and won support from the Legislature and Gov. George Deukmejian to add 64 new positions to process the backlog and funding for a state-of-the-art computer system.
But he said few of the new jobs have been filled because the program does not have offices large enough to house all the new employees. And he said the Board of Control "has failed to get properly trained staff to maintain" the computer system or to train the staff to use it effectively.
Austin Eaton, executive officer of the Board of Control, conceded that the backlog was large but said much of it is due to legislation that broadened the list of people eligible for restitution, which he asserted caused "explosive growth" in the program.
Eaton said that five years ago, when the program was limited to victims of violent crimes, 8,600 claims were filed. But he said that since the program was expanded to include people suffering emotional trauma from such things as child abuse, the program has more than doubled. He said 24,000 claims were filed last year, a 50% increase over the year before.
Torres took the unusual step of subpoenaing state workers employed by the crime victims program. The senator said that the program was in such disarray that there was no other way to get the employees to testify.
The employees told of being harassed and pushed by their supervisors to approve claims even when they were not justified.
Kris Yoshada, a senior claims supervisor, said that at one point management got so desperate that "we were told to (just) pay the claims, get them through."
Beverly Shah, a claims supervisor, said everyone in the department is working under stressful conditions and it is not uncommon for supervisors to be seen "yelling and screaming" at workers.