AUSTIN (KXAN) — When a group of men killed 22-year-old Bakari Henderson during a 2017 vacation in Greece, it didn’t just leave his mother Jill Henderson with crushing grief. Bakari’s death also led to an emotionally-draining legal saga abroad and his family dealing with unexpected, but critical, expenses.
To help move forward with her life, and assist with the financial burden of having to fly back and forth to attend an overseas trial, Jill did what thousands of other Texans who have been affected by violent crime do each year: she applied for help from the Texas Crime Victims’ Compensation Program. And, like thousands of others trying to access the program each year, Jill found herself struggling to get her claim processed and enough compensation to handle the bills.
In March, Jill traveled to the Texas Capitol and joined more than 100 other victims of violent crime — and their family members — to support legislation that would improve and expand access to benefits and reimbursements from the CVC Program.
“We call for our elected leaders to stand with us and ensure that survivors have the help they need to heal,” she told a crowd of people who have been impacted by violence.
One bill she supports has now made it to the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott. However, problems still remain with the CVC Program.
In 2022, KXAN found chronic problems in the CVC division, including low staffing and pay, and a “toxic” morale. As a result, victims and their families — like the Hendersons — are waiting longer and longer for benefits to rebuild their lives. It turns out those problems have only worsened, new data obtained by KXAN shows.
In April, application processing times for victim claims were longer and a larger percentage of positions are vacant in the CVC office, since KXAN’s initial investigation.
“It’s something I’ve not only heard about. I’m living through it,” Jill told KXAN, referring to problems in the CVC division.
Jill said she waited about eight months for her application to process. She, and eligible family, ultimately received $12,000 in reimbursements for expenses to travel to Greece to be present at the trial of the men who beat her son to death, she said, adding she is still waiting on additional payments.
The process, she said, wasn’t easy.
“It’s a very antiquated system,” she said. “You either have to fax or mail in your documentation, which is already a time-consuming effort.”
Last year the program received over 42,000 applications and awarded more than $71.8 million for victims and their families, according to an annual report. The CVC division is within the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Making changes at the Capitol
Jill said she supports Senate Bill 49 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and House Bill 250 by State Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint. The two pieces of legislation are companion bills that would expand access and increase reimbursements for certain CVC benefits.
What the bill accomplishes:
- Expands eligibility for compensation to household members and expands the definition of a family member.
- Increases reimbursement for lost wages as a result of bereavement leave when a family or household member is killed from $1,000 to $3,333.
- Increases rental reimbursement (currently $1,800) and relocation costs (currently $2,000) to not more than $5,000.
Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment when asked if he would sign the bill.
In an interview with KXAN, Gonzalez acknowledged both the need to expand access and reimbursements to the program — which her bill accomplishes — and the need to shore up problems in the CVC division that are delaying crime victim claims.
“We are hearing some similar reports [to what KXAN found] and it’s very concerning,” Gonzalez said. “I’m really committed to making sure crime victims get the compensation that they need.”
Gonzalez, who is vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said she is committed to boosting pay for state workers through an across-the-board salary hike of 10% over two years.
“Ultimately, the families are the ones who are paying the price,” said Gonzalez, referring to the impact high turnover is having on claim delays.
She said problems in the CVC division could be addressed by questioning the agency’s leaders about the slowdown and placing riders in the budget directing the agency to accommodate families in a certain amount of time.
“The AG does have some discretionary availability to increase the pay of his own employees and so we are putting some pressure on his office,” Gonzalez said. “We just have to really make the attorney general do it and so we are very committed to that.”
Paxton’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.
In last year’s KXAN investigation of the CVC program, multiple employees in the division spoke with KXAN on conditions of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The workers said they felt overloaded, the division was plagued with low morale and claims were being delayed. All those problems were leaving victims waiting longer for help.
Now, more than six months later, the problems appear to be worse. Victim claims are taking longer, and vacancies in the CVC division remain high, according to a KXAN analysis of data obtained through the Texas Public Information Act.
In March of 2022, the average wait time for a victim to receive their first claim payment was 121 days. In March of this year, that number went up to 180.
In March 2022, there were 33 victim claims that took longer than 250 days for payment, an internal benchmark the attorney general’s office uses to identify excessively slow payments. In March of this year, there were 122 claims paid past 250 days. The 250-day measurement is a specific timeframe monitored internally by CVC division leaders, according to workers who spoke with KXAN and agency records.
Vacancy rates in the division also remain high, records shows. Last October, about 33% of the division’s positions were vacant. In March, that percentage rose to 36%, according to division phone lists obtained by KXAN.
In a message to state leaders in the CVC program’s 2022 annual report, Paxton appeared to acknowledge the program needs improvement.
“Unfortunately, in many ways, Covid-19 and related economic challenges continue to affect different facets of victim services, including training, recruiting, staffing, teleworking, and our ability to respond to mass casualty events,” Paxton wrote. “Moving forward, we want to identify where our processes can improve, make allowable changes, and recommend proposals to the Texas Legislature that will grant us the ability to better serve victims.”