AUSTIN (KXAN) – A new law that took effect this month expands benefits available to victims of violent crimes in Texas. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, authored the law and said she has “high hopes” it will help more families in dire need, but it remains unclear how orderly the rollout will be this soon in the process, she said.

“Because Senate Bill (SB) 49 is effective on Sept. 1, it’s too early to know if implementation will be smooth, what challenges will be faced, to track progress and to benefit from lessons learned,” Zaffirini said in a statement to KXAN.

The Crime Victims’ Compensation Program is a state and federally funded assistance program for people whose lives have been disrupted by violent crime. The program offsets costs for things like lost wages, relocation expenses, lost rent, funerals and therapy. There is an application and review process, and almost all money is provided through reimbursement when no alternatives – like insurance or workers’ compensation – are available. Last year, the program awarded over $71.8 million in compensation, according to an annual report prepared by the Texas Office of Attorney General, which operates the fund.

KXAN inquired about how the implementation of the new law may play out, following a November 2022 KXAN investigation that uncovered dysfunction and disarray in the division that administers the program.

That investigation found the CVC division was hemorrhaging staff and unable to quickly process compensation claims. KXAN obtained data showing high turnover was causing victims to wait for months to get payments. Crime victims said those problems were compounding their own. Multiple division workers, who spoke with KXAN anonymously, said they were drowning in extra work, the office was rife with burnout and the atmosphere had turned toxic.

In follow-up reporting this May, KXAN obtained additional data showing the CVC division’s ability to process claims had only worsened.

Above from the CVC division, the administration of the attorney general’s office has been in turmoil. Now-suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton was removed from his office following his impeachment. Since his suspension, Gov. Greg Abbott has appointed two interim attorneys general. The impeachment trial began Tuesday and could result in his permanent ouster, if he’s convicted.

New law brings hope to victims

Zaffirni’s law was focused on shoring up shortfalls in the rules governing certain benefits available to victims and their families, such as relocation.

“Our priority is to ensure victims and their close family or household members have the flexibility and support to relocate if necessary for their safety. It is crucial to consider the broader picture–not only the immediate victim, but also the more expansive network of persons affected by injurious conduct,” Zaffirni said of the legislation. “Our new law broadens the protective net around victims by allowing close family members who have resided with the victim for at least two years and any current household members to apply for relocation expenses.”

The law allows the attorney general’s office the discretion to provide relocation expenses to a limited number of claims per incident and provide further money if there was a “extraordinary health or safety need,” Zaffirni said.

The law also raises bereavement leave compensation to $3,333, from $1,000, for family or household members of someone who died. That adjustment coincides with the 2023 average weekly wage, she said.

Aswad Thomas, national director for Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, said the bill will help provide support needed for victims to heal from the physical and emotional wounds inflicted by violence.

“We can’t have true safety in Texas without addressing the needs of crime survivors,” Aswad said in a statement. “When victims are unable to fully recover from trauma, they are more likely to be revictimized and our communities are less safe.”

Funding and further help

The CVC program gets money mainly through the state and federal governments. At the state level, funds come from court fees and other fees paid by people convicted of crimes. The federal money comes from so-called VOCA grants that use money from fines and penalties from federal crimes. VOCA is named after the “Victims of Crime Act.”

Federal legislation called the VOCA Fix Act was cosponsored by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in 2021 and was passed to shore up the funding sources for the federal government’s Crime Victims Fund. The federal government’s fund balance was diminishing and needed to be updated, according to the bill.

“In Texas and across the country this fund provides life saving support and services for survivors,” Cornyn told the Senate in 2021, in support of the Crime Victims Fund. The VOCA Fix Act expanded available funding for VOCA grants to provide critical support for victim services providers.

Following the passage of that federal legislation, Cornyn’s office announced in late August that Texas would be receiving $150.2 million in VOCA grants to improve crime victim services.

Of that funding, $118.4 million goes to the Office of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and $31.8 million goes the Texas attorney general’s office.

The VOCA grants are awarded annually to Texas, Abbott’s office said.

The VOCA Fix Act has resulted in additional funds this year, and “Texas appropriated $115 million of state funds for victim advocacy and support services in the 2024-2025 state budget to maintain financial support for these important services while the VOCA Fix Act funds continue to recover,” according to a statement from Abbott’s office.

In fiscal year 2022, the VOCA grant that went to the Texas attorney general’s office was $19.3 million. The attorney general’s office did not respond to KXAN’s questions about how it will use the $31.8 million VOCA grant.