Chapter 1: ‘Deal with it’
By David Barer and Matt Grant
AUSTIN (KXAN) – Patricia Bourdon carries a scar between her eyebrows from the gash caused by a violent assault at her home this summer.
“He took a broomstick and held it like a spear and jabbed me in the forehead repeatedly and split my head open,” said Bourdon, 44, who walked KXAN through a binder of court documents, medical records and photos showing her bruised and bloodied face.
The attack shattered Bourdon’s life as she knew it. She left her home, where the attack happened, but said she was unable to quickly find a stable alternative. With no house, no transportation besides her bicycle, and her savings drained, she has bounced between the homes of friends and family. KXAN met her at a south Austin business’ parking lot.
To help rebuild her life, Bourdon turned to the state’s Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund. In August, she applied for money to help cover medical bills, lost wages and relocation expenses, according to records she provided.
The compensation fund, which was created by the Texas Legislature in 1979 and is managed by the Texas Attorney General’s Office, is supposed to help victims of violent crimes rebuild their lives. It went into effect in 1980. The fund’s coffer is filled with court fees and federal grants to pay victims, typically up to $50,000 or a total of $125,000 for catastrophic injuries. The fund is a “last source of payment by law,” meaning all other sources of money like insurance or workers’ compensation must pay before it, according to its annual report.
It’s help that can’t come soon enough but, for many like Bourdon, is taking too long.
Almost three months after she was approved, Bourdon hasn’t received anything. She calls the office to check on her claim nearly every day, she said. On one occasion, she said she spent six hours on hold, only to be disconnected at 5 p.m when the office closed.
“I was so mad. I was livid. I can’t even explain to you how angry I was that day,” Bourdon said. “I wanted to rip my hair out. I was crying.”
When she has reached a case worker, she’s been told the office is “behind.”
“They’re backed up, and I just have to deal with it,” she said the worker told her. “It’s just the way it is.”
Bourdon is one of tens of thousands of crime victims who apply for compensation each year in Texas, expecting relief after being harmed. These are people who have been raped, kidnapped, abused, assaulted, shot, robbed and hit by drunk drivers, among other crimes.
The money can be approved for things like relocation expenses for abused spouses, including rent and moving costs. Medical expenses, therapy bills and funerals are also covered. Victims must apply for assistance, generally, within three years. To qualify, the crime had to have occurred in Texas and reported to law enforcement.
In fiscal year 2021, the CVC division received over 25,600 victim claim applications and paid out more than $71 million.
A KXAN investigation found the basic functions of the Crime Victims’ Compensation division – from processing applications, to sending first payments, to answering victim phone calls – have slowed substantially over the past year.
The cause: turmoil within the CVC division. A third of the division’s positions were vacant in September, according to records obtained by KXAN and interviews with current and former employees. The division lost more employees in the first nine months of 2022 than the previous two years combined. Employees are complaining of a “toxic” work environment and struggling to handle immense workloads while being underpaid, interviews and internal records reveal.
In September 2021, it took an average of 109 days for the state to provide a first payment for a victim claim. That number jumped to 149 this past September — the highest it has been in almost four years, according to records KXAN reviewed.
It’s unclear how many victims are aware this help even exists. After high profile mass violence events, Texas’ top elected leaders have promoted the fund as a way to get victims of crimes – like the families of children killed at Robb Elementary in Uvalde – assistance they desperately need.
Over the course of nearly a month, KXAN emailed the AG’s office a half dozen times, providing questions and asking to interview an official who could talk about specific problems we discovered and how they could be solved. When the AG’s office would not agree to an interview, KXAN provided a list of specific questions by email. The AG’s office responded with a brief statement:
“Thank you for giving us some additional time to consider your questions. Upon further consideration, we will not be providing any comment beyond the following: Attorney General Paxton and his entire Agency will continue to work around the clock to timely and faithfully serve the victims of crimes in Texas.”Texas Attorney General’s Office Email
Chapter 2: ‘Retramautizing’
The payment problem isn’t just impacting victims. It affects people providing critical services to them, like licensed professional counselor Shy Seaman.
Seaman runs M.O.R.E Heart & Soul Counseling, providing trauma therapy, among other services, in Silsbee, a small town about 15 miles north of Beaumont in Southeast Texas.
Seaman said she doesn’t take insurance or money from victims of crime. Rather, she provides counseling for crime victims without payment and then applies for CVC reimbursement herself.
That means a lot of paperwork and, lately, long waits.
“It takes a good while for them to start paying,” Seaman said. “I think it’s gotten worse, though.”
Seaman said she is still waiting on reimbursement for a claim submitted in January – 10 months prior to our interview. Her own accounting software shows she’s waiting on more than $10,000 from CVC.
Fortunately, Seaman said, her business is doing well. She can afford to wait for payment. But, that could change.
“I hope it doesn’t get to the point where … payments are so delayed that I just can’t do it anymore,” Seaman said. “Because I’m already owed so much money.”
She said it’s a real possibility that, unless CVC “payments start speeding up,” she may have to start charging crime victims and let them work with CVC to get reimbursed.
Seaman worries crime victims elsewhere are delaying therapy because they don’t have enough money to pay up front and can’t count on quick CVC reimbursements.
That’s what survivor and CVC applicant Samantha Carlson said happened to her.
“I haven’t talked to my therapist in months. I haven’t seen my psychiatrist in a while,” said Carlson, 31, who recently moved from Austin to Kansas City, Missouri. “Canceled our last appointment because I don’t feel confident that I’ll get reimbursed.”
Carlson’s case began in August 2016, when she told police she was raped in a downtown Austin hotel room while she slept.
She immediately called 911. In a recording of the call, Carlson sobs as she frantically tells the operator: “I need to report a rape. I don’t know where I am … please help me.”
Police determined the suspect sexually assaulted Carlson while she was “unconscious and physically unable to resist,” according to Travis County court records. Despite DNA evidence, Carlson said her attacker was acquitted at trial in 2019. That verdict, she said, drove her deeper into depression.
Carlson agreed to speak on camera and explain how her struggle to secure money from CVC has affected her life.
In a word, she called it “retraumatizing.”
“I worry all the time that I’m going to run out of medication and not have enough money to get refills,” Carlson said. “Sometimes, I don’t take my medication as frequently as I’m supposed to just because I’m terrified. Like, what if I run out?”
She needs to see a psychiatrist every month and needs medication that, at last refill, cost $600, she said. “It adds up really quickly.”
The medication has helped treat her PTSD, depression and suicidal thoughts, she said.
“[It helps] not have nightmares every night, so bad I can’t sleep,” she said. “To be able to go about my day without thinking about how it would be so much easier if I never woke up.”
The CVC paid over $2,100 for four of her prescriptions between November 2021 and this past March, along with two doctor visits in April, according to records Carlson provided. She’s still waiting for money for therapy appointments from two years ago, medications she’s struggling to afford, and for reimbursement of lost wages dating back to 2017, according to records she submitted to the state and showed KXAN.
Carlson said communication from the CVC office has been unclear, and she has been left wondering what exactly she has been approved for. She’s also unsure what she can do to get help faster, she said.
“I know how much I’ve struggled, and it just breaks my heart knowing other people are also struggling,” Carlson said. “I just feel it shouldn’t be this difficult.”
Chapter 3: ‘Below the Titanic’
KXAN spoke on camera with one former CVC division employee, who said it isn’t just the victims struggling with the system.
Turnover and staffing shortages within the CVC division have grown worse in the past year, according to records obtained by KXAN, and information provided by four former and current employees who spoke with KXAN on the condition of anonymity. KXAN confirmed the employment of each employee using W2 forms or work badges.
One former case manager, who spoke on camera with KXAN, requested her identity be concealed because she continues to work for the government.
“You’re handling more and more cases and more workload,” said the woman, who recently quit after working for the agency for several years. “It’s just overwhelming.”
The former employee – a case manager who helped victims with their claims and ensured applications were complete and correct – described the office as “toxic” and said it “hurt” knowing claims lingered while victims were in dire need of help.
“The turnover rate was horrible, and there’s only so much that we can do,” the former employee said. “We try to do our best and try to keep ourselves afloat, and it’s just so much.”
The CVC division lost 25 employees in the first nine months of 2022, which was more than all of 2021 and 2020 combined, payroll records show.
As of September, 32% of the division’s positions were vacant, according to lists of division positions.
“They’re drowning; the boat’s probably way underneath the Titanic,” she said. “They need help. They need pay raises.”
The former employee said she had “about 600 active cases” to manage at once. Some of the other “14 or 15 case managers” had more than that — “maybe 900” — she said. When a case manager quit, their outstanding claims would be inherited by the remaining workers, she said — creating confusion, backlog and burnout.
The office has an internal metric it used to identify excessively slow payments, according to the employee. If a claim takes over 250 days to receive a first payment, it gets flagged. KXAN obtained internal data that showed 50 people had waited at least that long to be paid in August, double the number at the start of the year.
On top of handling hundreds of claims, workers were ground down by stress and angry applicants venting frustration, she said. With the division short-staffed, she had to help with other administrative duties, including answering phones at the depleted call center, she said.
At one point, she said the CVC call center that had been staffed by five or six workers was down to just one. Remember when Patricia Bourdon said she was forced to wait on hold for six hours? Records show victims are waiting longer to reach CVC workers by phone.
KXAN obtained several months of call center reports for the CVC division over the past three years. The records show marked increases in call wait times and calls dropped in September 2022.
From January to September this year, the number of people who called for help and hung up, or were disconnected before reaching someone, jumped from 1,283 to 3,140, according to data from one of the division’s phone lines.
Hold times are also up.
The average time victims are forced to wait on hold tripled for one of the division’s main phone lines between January and September. On another phone line, the average wait time increased from about seven minutes to more than 34 minutes over the same timeframe, call center records show.
“We care. We’re trying our best,” the former case manager said. “They’re not retaining enough people to help us.”
All about the ‘Money honey’
Three other employees who spoke with KXAN – two former and one current – echoed the same concerns. Exit surveys and resignation letters from the AG’s Office show similar complaints by departing employees in the past year.
In one exit survey this year, an unnamed employee said the agency should give raises and hire more workers to “minimize the stress in the workload.”
“My rent went way up,” an employee wrote in an August exit survey. “As a seasoned employee, I had to get a part time job to pay my rent in Austin.”
A 2021 exit survey provided a more succinct reason for leaving: “Money honey.”
The common refrain was cited by another CVC worker in an August resignation letter.
“With not being able to further increase my wages within my earnings bracket, while the costs of living continuing to rise, I’ve concluded that it was time to look elsewhere for a more sustainable income,” the resigning employee said.
As the CVC division hemorrhages employees, the impact is being felt by victims, like Dana Ewing, who waited a year to get reimbursed for relocation expenses after an assault, she said.
KXAN traveled 200 miles to meet Ewing, who lives in Lumberton, a town of roughly 13,000 near Beaumont.
Ewing, 33, sat for an interview with KXAN at her mother’s home. Referencing hospital and court records, Ewing described how she was a victim of domestic violence, culminating in a violent assault on July 19, 2018. A hospital report from that day describes bruising of her eyeball and “orbital tissue” as a result of a “physical assault.” She told hospital staff her face “was slammed into the concrete” and reported a headache, nausea and vomiting.
A month after the assault, a Hardin County District Court judge signed a protective order saying, “the court finds that family violence has occurred and that family violence is likely to occur again in the future.”
The assault cost her thousands. Records show she applied to the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund for payments that added up to $34,509, based on her total bills. So far, she’s received about a quarter of that at $8,303. Part of the money the state paid went to directly to Seaman, who Ewing told KXAN is her therapist.
Ewing said it took a little over a year to get paid $1,900 for housing relocation, even though the fund is meant, in part, to help domestic violence victims quickly get out of harm’s way.
Ewing has since remarried and has twins on the way. Years later, she’s still working on getting CVC payments for medical bills from 2018, she said.
“It gets very frustrating because now all these medical bills have been turned over to collections,” she said. “At this point, I have given up.”
“I hope they can find a way,” she added, “to make this process better and easier.”
System ‘needs to have compassion’
Texas State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin) is troubled by KXAN’s findings and concerned about the functioning of the CVC division in particular.
“I was not surprised,” Eckhardt said, regarding KXAN’s findings. “It’s unfortunate that we’re seeing labor shortages all across state government.”
While the amount of money in the CVC fund itself is “healthy,” she said, the staffing needed to disburse the money is not. Current and former employees blame the significant vacancies on low morale and a lack of pay raises at the agency.
“Frankly, who would want to work in those environments?” Eckhardt said.
Eckhardt said the system “needs to have compassion.” She wants to see a simpler, more streamlined application process for crime victims, on top of more staffing at the office to handle calls and process claims.
“There’s very little customer support coming from the Attorney General’s office because they have a 40% vacancy rate,” Eckhardt said. “The time lag and getting a response out of the Attorney General’s Office for these people, who really need to rebuild their lives, is getting longer.”
Meanwhile, crime victims like Bourdon, who was beaten with a broom stick and still bears a scar from the gash across her forehead, just need help. Without a home, living paycheck to paycheck, she’s not sure how much longer she can wait.
“I almost gave up so many times,” she said. “I can’t even imagine how many people are stuck in the same situation or worse.”
If you or someone you know is in need of help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233), or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).
Investigative Photojournalist Richard Bowes, Graphic Artists Rachel Gale and Aileen Hernandez, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Photojournalist Tim Holcomb, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report. Special thanks to our Nexstar sister station, WDAF Fox 4 Kansas City, for its help in gathering content for this investigation.