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Trolley victims getting help from Utah fund

Crime Victims Reparation distributed $6.1M in ’06

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Even as top government officials meet today in Utah to explore the lessons to be learned from the tragedies of mass public shootings, help quietly continues for the victims.

It comes through paperwork, phone calls and the issuance of a check — money that certainly won't change the outcome of what happened at Trolley Square, but money that can be used as a down payment to ease suffering.

"I think it is clear that crime-victim reparations can't solve all the problems and can't make the victim completely whole," said Ron

Gordon, executive director of the Utah Office of Crime Victim Reparations. "We recognize that victimization may take a long time to recover from, and we fill a very narrow but important role."

That compensation happens in the background of the public glare of the Department of Justice's announcement this week that President George Bush has directed a fact-finding mission by three of his top officials into mass public shootings.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings are visiting seven states — including Utah — where such events have occurred. The trio do not plan to visit the states together but are divvying up their meetings in various states.

Gonzales was not slated to visit Utah as part of his travels, Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said Thursday, but a Justice Department representative will be at today's event in which Leavitt is scheduled to meet with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. The meeting also includes other local leaders, educators, mental-health experts and law enforcement officials, who will discuss issues stirred by mass shootings.

Similar discussions are expected to play out in Minnesota, Colorado, Iowa, Tennessee, Texas, California and Colorado. A report on the findings is to be submitted to President Bush within 30 days.

While much of the focus is likely to be aimed at prevention — stopping killers such as Trolley's Sulejman Talovic and Virginia Tech's Seung-Hui Cho before they start — Gordon's agency and others are left dealing with the immediate impact of what happened.

In the aftermath of the Trolley shooting, the crime-victim reparations office dispersed nearly $60,000 in assistance to victims — assistance that can range from help with funeral expenses to compensation for lost wages. Gordon expects that before the final check is written, the fund will have spent at least an additional $200,000 in compensation to Trolley victims.

Before the shock even began to dissipate, the fund took the unorthodox step of promoting itself as a resource for victims through announcements in newspapers and on television.

"Usually we don't do that directly," Gordon said. "But because of the scale of the victimization there — those who were shot and those who were uninjured — we wanted to get the word out as broadly as possible."

The fear was that shoppers, employees and business owners who escaped physically unscathed that night may not have felt they were victimized, which he said just isn't the case.

"From our standpoint, anyone there when it happened would have been considered a victim and eligible for, at the very least, mental-health counseling."

So far, the awards include payments as small as $1.40 to as much as $7,000.

Most victims of violent crime may be eligible for some sort of compensation from the fund, which in 2006 distributed just over $6.1 million to crime victims. Of the 6,609 claims received, 1,290 were rejected and another 201 were pending as of the release of the agency's annual report.

The average amount awarded was $1,199, but victims or families who suffer the most egregious of violent crimes — such as homicide, attempted homicide, aggravated assault or certain DUI offenses — may be compensated up to $50,000 for qualifying expenses.

None of the money comes from taxpayer dollars. Instead, it is funded through state and federal surcharges on fines, penalties and forfeitures related to criminal cases.

Most crime victims helped by the fund are referred to the agency for assistance, although Gordon said referrals aren't required.

Advocates do outreach and training with police agencies, prosecutors, hospitals, nonprofit organizations such as crisis centers, insurance companies and even funeral homes.

The most significant category of compensation benefits awarded last year was the nearly $2.7 million given to pay medical expenses. That didn't include an estimated $570,000 for sexual-assault examinations or the roughly $1.1 million paid in mental-health counseling.

Aside from fixing chipped teeth or assisting with funeral travel expenses, the fund will in some cases pay relocation expenses for victims and assist with rent payments or deposits for, as an example, a battered woman who needs a new place to live. Advocates play a key role in directing victims to the help they need.

Court systems, along with prosecutor offices, have for years assigned advocates whose primary job is to assist victims through the criminal process, whether it is explaining the legal system or arranging for ancillary services such as counseling.

Weber County Attorney Mark DeCaria said the role of the advocate is critical.

"There's just an attitude and a softness there that crime victims who are injured by the bad behavior of a defendant need to have help. They need to know the system has not forgotten them, that they are part of the case, that they are living, breathing human beings who need to be kept aware," he said. "We do a lot of hand holding."

Because the killer in the Trolley Square shooting ended his own life, there wasn't a criminal prosecution. That possibly could have meant victims would be overlooked.

For that reason and because of the scope of the tragedy, not only did crime-victim reparations officials reach out but Valley Mental Health advertised its crisis line in print and on television.

The mental-health provider even put up billboards advertising the hotline. Police agencies, hospitals and others also became the conduit to direct victims on available resources.

Today, while top leaders meet to discuss the "whys" of such tragedies, Gordon's agency and others continue to work on the "hows" of helping people cope and for some — to eventually recover.

"We can help take some of those things off the victim's plate," Gordon said, "and for a short amount of time, they can focus on something else, and they don't have to have to worry about the medical bills, or if someone just can't go back to that house because they're afraid, we can help."

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com