AUSTIN (KXAN) — Following a KXAN investigation into dysfunction in the state’s Crime Victims’ Compensation fund, Texas lawmakers say they are examining legislative fixes, including more money for the division overseeing the program.

The CVC fund is administered by the Office of Attorney General. It provided over $71 million to victims of violent crimes last fiscal year for expenses like medical bills, lost wages, funerals and therapy.

KXAN discovered the CVC division experienced serious staffing issues this year – losing more workers in the first nine months of 2022 than the previous two years combined. In September, 32% of the division’s positions were vacant, according to agency records. CVC workers told KXAN they are struggling, overburdened and stressed by a toxic work environment.

All these problems combined have slowed down payments from the fund. Victims of violent crimes – like sexual assault, drunk driving crashes, robbery and domestic abuse – have been left waiting for months, even years in some cases, to get repaid. Attrition has also hit the CVC division’s call center, increasing phone hold times and dropped calls this year.

The CVC division’s own data shows the average number of days for victims to receive their first payment increased from 109 days last September to 149 last month, according to internal records obtained by KXAN through the Texas Public Information Act.

“It’s heartbreaking to see that the Attorney General’s Office is failing at deploying those funds and getting them to families in a timely manner,” State Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, told KXAN.

Zwiener described the staffing shortages as “catastrophic” and said she would be looking at ways to appropriate “narrowly tailored funds just for that program.”

“One of the things we can do is try to inject some funding directly into staffing for that section of the agency,” she said, adding the challenge will be making sure the office keeps the funds within that specific program.

Zwiener is running for reelection in her Hays and Blanco County district against Republican challenger Michelle Lopez. KXAN offered Lopez the same interview opportunity as Zwiener. Lopez provided a statement, saying she “could only imagine” the frustration of crime victims and difficulties faced by CVC division employees.

“With the shortages of staffing in many sectors of our state’s workforce, the AG’s office, unfortunately, is not immune. Long-term solutions can be considered with relation to state employee wages when budgeting this next legislative session,” Lopez said. “In the short-term, I hope an evaluation of the processing of each request can bring about a streamlined method with shortened wait times for victims and the providers who support them.”

A composite image of crime scene tape and the Texas Capitol (KXAN Photo)
Lawmakers are considering how they can imrpove the Texas Crime Victims’ Fund following a KXAN investigation (KXAN Photo/Josh Hinkle)

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office would not agree to an interview with KXAN or answers specific questions about problems found in the investigation. The AG’s office provided a statement saying the agency “will continue to work around the clock to timely and faithfully serve the victims of crimes in Texas.”

At a campaign event in San Marcos last Friday, Zwiener highlighted KXAN’s investigations into the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund. She told a crowd of about two dozen people the AG’s office “has been letting down victims of violent crime in Texas.”

Democratic attorney general candidate Rochelle Garza, who was in attendance, said she watched our reports and, if elected, said it is “critical” case managers have the resources to do the job – citing a need for increased pay and more staffing.

“The fact that the crime victims’ unit is not being run efficiently,” said Garza, “that is the most basic function of this office.”

Garza responded to concerns raised by a former CVC employee who told KXAN she quit due to low pay, understaffing and the stress of handling hundreds of cases at once.

“No one individual should be in charge of 500 cases or up to 900 cases. That’s just wrong,” said Garza. “How can you expect someone to do their job when they’re just overworked and underpaid?”

‘Urgently looking’

As part of the state’s interim charges to the Legislature, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee was tasked with studying the availability of victim services in the state, including things like relocation assistance, which CVC provides.

The Jurisprudence Committee met Oct. 21 to discuss that charge. Victim advocates testified and voiced concerns about CVC payment delays and burdensome “red tape” in the application process and rules.

Kathryn Jacob, president and CEO of SafeHaven of Tarrant County, told lawmakers the CVC fund can be a great resource, but it has problems. Specific compensation limits haven’t kept up with inflation, and extended waits leave victims struggling, she said.

“With housing costs on the rise, paired with inflation, the amount allowed for rent and relocation can be too low to support a survivor’s needs,” Jacob said. “Process barriers can also create lags.”

Elizabeth Garcia, a victim assistance coordinator with the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, echoed Jacob’s testimony. The fund is critical, she said, but help is taking too long.

“We recently had a case where we had a family who was applying for reimbursement. The victim was a victim of a drunk driving incident and was deceased, and the application was submitted in May, and we just heard back about the approval for the funds,” Garcia told lawmakers in October. “This was for funeral cost to reimburse the family.”

‘Obstacles’ and ‘red tape’

State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, chairs the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. She asked for examples of how the statute could be improved.

Kristen Huff, Deputy Chief for the Crime Victim Services Division, spoke on behalf of the AG’s office. She said the compensation application is “lengthy” and “there is always room to improve.”

“The paperwork obstacles, or what people define as red tape, really comes down to the requirement that these constitutionally dedicated funds are being used in a legally appropriate way,” Huff said.

As far as improvements, Huff said, the Legislature could expand the definition of a member of a household and the limits on payments for a parent of a lost child, among other changes.

For bereavement leave, an applicant can get “no more than $1,000, if you have lost a child, and that’s it,” Huff said.

“Wow,” Collier responded.

Huff said all the limits on compensation that have been set by administrative rules have been increased. However, limits set in statute – such as rent and relocation, and bereavement – have not been raised. The ceilings for rent and relocation benefits were passed in 1997 and haven’t changed since then, Huff said.

After the Jurisprudence Committee meeting “my staff began urgently looking into ways to improve the program to ensure that victims are more fairly compensated than currently allowed by statute,” Collier said in a statement.

KXAN’s “reporting reinforces the urgency within my own office, but it also demands that the Legislature closely examine the structural issues within the Office of the Attorney General that are harming everyday Texans when they are at their most vulnerable,” she added.

Collier is seeking reelection, and KXAN asked Collier’s Republican challenger, Taylor Mondick, fora comment. He shared “There’s no excuse for this. If more staff and better pay are needed at the CVC division to compensate Texas victims promptly, this needs to be a top priority next session. With our record budget surplus, funding shouldn’t be an issue.”

Another member of the House committee, State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, said Texas voters need to hold elected officials accountable for these problems.

“The allegations of dysfunction at the Crime Victims’ Compensation fund are almost identical to examples of dysfunction I have recently heard about many state agencies in Texas: understaffed, low employee morale, and ultimately, Texans who should be benefiting from services go without,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “Everything is broken.”

KXAN sought comment from all nine members of bipartisan House committee, which includes five Republicans. Only Collier and Hinojosa responded.

Hinojosa is also running for reelection. We attempted to contact her Republican opponent, Katherine Griffin, for comment but she has not responded.

Q&As on the project

WATCH: KXAN Investigators Matt Grant and David Barer discuss the problems they discovered with the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund and the solutions lawmakers began considering since the project launched.

KXAN Investigators also appeared on the following programs to discuss the project:

This story is an update to KXAN’s “Held Up” investigation, which launched on November 2, 2022. Explore the original series, data interactives and resources for crime victims in Texas.