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CAPITOL OFFENSES Stonewalling the Victims BY NATE BLAKESLEE 1 n May of this year, Lupe Vargas was beaten by her husband. Pregnant, broke, and with three kids to her home in fear for her life. She cashed one of her children’s Social Security checks to pay the deposit on an apartment. Her check for the first month’s rent bounced, but the landlord took pity on her and let her stay. After she gave birth in early July, a social worker at the hospital advised her to apply for a relatively new program, administered by the Attorney General’s office. The program provides relocation money including moving expenses and rent for battered women, up to a total of $3,800 per applicant. In emergencies, like that of Vargas \(who is still unable to pay her rapid response. Lupe faxed in her application from the hospital in mid-July. Two weeks later, with an eviction looming, not only had she received no money, she had yet to hear a word from the agency. Lupe Vargas’s case is not an isolated example of the failure of the relocation program, which is administered by the Attorney General’s Crime Victims’ Compensation Program. According to several sources in the women’s advocacy community, relocation money has never flowed through the program at the levels intended. But in recent months, the payments to women desperately in need of help has slowed to a trickle. “It used to be I could get an emergency check in seventytwo hours,” Austin-area women’s advocate, who requested anonymity. “Now the whole attitude has changed. Women have been told that there is no money for relocation. Advocates have been stonewalled or given the runaround.” According to current and former employees of the Crime Victims Compensation Program, the recent meltdown is a symptom of wider management problems within the twenty-year old division, which assists victims of crime with a variety of expenses, from hospital bills to funeral costs, and even provides lost wages to eligible vic 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER tims. Morale is low, they say. As is efficiency: at one point this summer a backlog of over 1,200 unprocessed applications for assistance had accumulated. Once widely recognized for its efficiency, advocates say the program began to suffer after Republican Attorney General John Cornyn was sworn into office some eighteen months ago, and its troubles were exacerbated by a shakeup in division organization last spring. Critics of the program claim that to cover a spike in overhead costs including a substantial raise for a new director of the program services and payments to the victims the program was designed to serve have been cut back. Assistant Attorney General Andy Taylor, John Cornyn’s chief lieutenant, conceded that the program as a whole seemed to be in trouble when he examined it this spring. “We were making some initial projections and we were doing such an aggressive and good job in getting the moneys out to the needy crime victims that it looked like we might actually reach the level that the Legislature had authorized earlier in the year, rather than later.” In other words, the Crime Victims’ Compensation Program, which administers the relocation assistance and other grant programs, was in danger of running out of money. But was the shortfall, as Taylor suggests, due to overzealous service to crime victims? Was the agency being victimized by its own efficiency? Documents obtained under the Open Records Act and interviews with agency officials suggest otherwise. Money for the program is drawn from a dedicated fund, which by law can be spent only on compensation to crime victims and the administration of the compensation program. The target given to the agency by the Legislature for fiscal year 2000 for all distributions to crime victims \(including relocation asing to agency records, as of June 23, the program was on pace to hit that distribution total. But overhead and administrative expenses were much higher than they should have been. By June 23, according to agency records, the prograin had only dispensed $33.2 million directly to victims of crime, but had already expended a total of $40.22 million from the dedicated fund. The total amount appropriated by the Legislature for the fiscal year for the entire program distributions and administration combined was only $43.9 million. The program was on pace to spend $49 million by August 31, the end of the fiscal year. Did Taylor or Cornyn rather than come hat in hand to the Legislature to ask for an emergency appropria tion give the order to slow the flow of money to victims? In April, the agency distributed nearly $3.8 million, the highest monthly total of the year to date. In May, that fell to $3.51 million, and then to $3.15 million in June. More telling are the numbers for the relocation assistance program. In May of 1999, when the bill creating the new program was being finalized, the Attorney General’s office projected that $3.4 million in relocation money would be distributed in fiscal year 2000 \(according to the 23 with just ten weeks left in the fiscal year the program had distributed only $679,000 to victims. That seems awfully low to Representative Pete Gallego, the Alpine Democrat who sponsored the bill. “I know the victims’ groups were very excited about it, and the members of the Legislature were very excited about it, and I would have hoped the staff people at the A.G.’s office would have been just as excited about the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives,” said Gallego. Adding insult to injury, one advocate noted, is the unprecedented $1.9 million in Crime Victims Compensation “excess funds” that the A.G.’s office will send this biennium to batterer’s intervention programs that is, therapy for abusive husbands and boyfriends administered by the Department of Criminal Justice. Thus, as of late summer, the agency is on pace to spend as much, if not more, this fiscal year, on treating battering men as it will on relocating battered women. AUGUST 25, 2000