Have you or a loved one become the victim of a violent crime? You may be struggling with several difficulties during your recovery, such as:

  • Expensive medical care
  • On-going therapy and counseling services
  • Difficulty returning to work
  • Permanent physical or mental disabilities

Our Pennsylvania crime victims' lawyers understand what your family is going through. We're here to help you get the support you need.

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Nearly every state has established some form of crime victim compensation fund. These special funds, operated by state agencies, gather money by levying fines and fees on convicted criminal offenders. Victims of crime are then allowed to submit claims, requesting reimbursement for specific out-of-pocket losses directly related to the crime. In Pennsylvania, the Victims Compensation Assistance Program serves this function, paying out around $13 million in benefits every year.

What Does The Victims Compensation Assistance Program Cover?

Victims compensation is not without its limitations. Pennsylvania’s program, for example, restricts all claims to a maximum payout of $35,000. Needless to say, this sum is often far less than actual crime victims require to recover from their injuries, both physical and emotional, with confidence.

Moreover, the Victims Compensation Assistance Program offers compensation only for so-called pecuniary losses, ones that can be easily proven using receipts and bills. Proof is absolutely necessary. Make sure to keep every bill and every receipt that you get because of the crime. You will have to submit these documents along with your claim application to ensure prompt processing and, of course, ultimate payment.

Specific Damages Covered In Pennsylvania

In most cases, Pennsylvania’s program will cover a limited amount of the following expenses:

  • Medical bills (including home healthcare, mental health services and transportation costs to and from necessary medical appointments; generally excludes penalties for missed appointments)
  • Counseling services (maximum of $10,000; does not count toward $35,000 maximum)
  • Loss of wages (maximum of $15,000)
  • Loss of financial support (children and other financial dependents can secure compensation if the people on whom they depend are unable to work; maximum of $20,000)
  • Funeral costs (maximum of $6,500)
  • Travel and childcare (generally limited to necessary travel for court appearances and other mandatory participation in the criminal justice system)
  • Stolen cash
  • Relocation (if relocation is deemed necessary to keep a crime victim and / or their family safe from harm; maximum of $1,000)
  • Crime scene cleanup (generally limited to the interiors of private residences, as opposed to vehicles or commercial properties; maximum of $500 per crime scene; does not count toward $35,000 maximum)
  • Attorney fees (maximum of $75 per hour; cannot exceed 15% of total award)

While the expenses for counseling and therapy may be covered, crime victims’ compensation funds do not pay out benefits to compensate victims for their pain and suffering, the very real physical pain and lasting emotional trauma that being victimized by a criminal can cause. In short, this form of compensation is not a substitute for civil litigation. By filing a civil lawsuit, victims of crime can secure a far wider range of damages, including those for pain and suffering, as well as punitive damages, intended to punish criminal offenders and third-parties for particularly egregious conduct.

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Free Forensic Rape Exams

In accordance with the Pennsylvania Crime Victims Act, all costs associated with forensic rape examinations (“rape kits”) and medication prescribed as the result of a sexual crime cannot be charged to the victim. These services are free for rape victims, regardless of whether or not they report the crime or cooperate with law enforcement. No victim should even be bothered about paying for a forensic examination or prescriptions directly related to a rape or sexual assault. Instead, healthcare providers are required to apply for reimbursement directly with the Victims Compensation Assistance Program. They are also required to submit the results of forensic exams to the appropriate law enforcement agencies.

Who Can Secure Compensation?

Even so, the Victims Compensation Assistance Program provides necessary funds to thousands of victims and families every year. Here’s who can apply:

  • direct victims of crime (criminal’s actions were a major factor in causing injuries)
  • intervenors (ie “Good Samaritans,” people who are injured while attempting to intervene and prevent a crime from occurring)
  • surviving spouses, parents or children of deceased victims or intervenors

Undocumented immigrants have every right to file a claim for compensation in Pennsylvania.

Many expenses covered by the Victims Compensation Assistance Program aren’t paid out as cash benefits. Medical bills, for example, will be paid directly to the healthcare provider. As a result, some businesses and medical institutions are also able to claim compensation through the Program. Funeral homes are allowed to apply for payment directly with the Program after providing funeral services for a victim of crime or intervenor. The same goes for companies who perform crime scene cleanup, along with health care professionals who provide forensic rape examinations.

In the event of death, a crime victim’s estate is not allowed to pursue compensation through Pennsylvania’s program. Instead, estates are entitled to pursue wrongful death damages against either a criminal offender or a negligent third-party by filing a civil lawsuit.

A major exception may apply to family members who live in the same household as the criminal offender. While direct victims who live with the offender remain eligible for compensation, other housemates are unable to apply for compensation insofar as their claim would “substantially benefit” the offender him or herself.

Eligibility Requirements

Not all victims of crime are eligible to secure compensation from Pennsylvania’s Victims Compensation Assistance Program. In large part, the program’s requirements were structured to encourage victims to step forward and help the State’s authorities put dangerous people behind bars. Pennsylvania stresses reporting to, and participating with, the State’s criminal justice system:

  • The crime occurred in Pennsylvania
  • Report the crime promptly (within 3 days)
  • The victim must cooperate with the police, applicable courts and the Victims Compensation Assistance Program
  • The claim for compensation must be filed within 2 years of the crime
  • The victim must not have been criminally responsible for the crime, or an accomplice of the criminal offender
  • The victim must have lost at least $100 due to the crime

We’ll cover each requirement, along with some exceptions that may apply to your own case, in more detail below.

The Crime Occurred In Pennsylvaniaphiladelphia skyscrapers

Pennsylvania’s compensation program usually applies only to crimes that were committed in Pennsylvania. As a result, some residents of Pennsylvania, namely those who were victimized in other states, may be ineligible to pursue compensation through the Victims Compensation Assistance Program. Thankfully, the majority of these victims will be covered by another state’s compensation program. Non-residents who were victimized in Pennsylvania, on the other hand, are allowed to make claims with Pennsylvania’s program.

These restrictions disappear, however, for Pennsylvania residents who were injured by crimes in foreign countries that do not have their own compensation programs, along with those injured by acts of international terrorism (terrorist acts occurring outside the United States). These victims, while not injured in Pennsylvania, are eligible for compensation through the Victims Compensation Assistance Program, although victims of international terrorism may secure higher awards by filing a claim with the International Terrorism Victim Expense Reimbursement Program. Crimes that occur in foreign countries should be reported to a U.S. Consulate to satisfy the Victims Compensation Assistance Program’s reporting requirement.

Report The Crime Promptly

In order to secure compensation, the crime must be reported to a proper authority within 3 days(72 hours) of its commission. Alongside police and district attorneys, military and campus police, hospital security officers, probation and parole officers and a child protective services office are all considered “proper” authorities under Pennsylvania law, in part because most of these disparate officials are required to file police reports.

Exceptions may apply for victims who can show “good cause” for their delay:

  • the victim is mentally or physically incapacitated
  • the victim fears retaliation
  • the crime is not obvious
  • the victim is (or was) a minor

For the purposes of compensation, filing a protection from abuse (PFA) order is considered equivalent to informing the police, even when no formal police report is made. As in the case of reporting, the petition for a PFA order must be submitted to a judge within 3 days of the crime’s occurrence to become eligible for state-administered compensation.

Protection From Abuse Orders

Protection from abuse orders, authorized by the Pennsylvania Protection from Abuse Act, order an abuser to stop abusing, harassing, stalking or contacting a victim, their children or their family members. PFA orders can also be used to remove an abuser from a shared home, award temporary custody of minor children and order an abuser to pay child support. Granted by a judge, PFA orders can only be used to secure protection from abusive family or household members. The law does not apply to abuse committed by strangers. The true power of a PFA order comes in the domain of enforcement. Once a protection from abuse order is issued, the police have the legal authority to arrest an abuser who violates terms of the order. Subsequently, the offender can be charged with a crime, known as indirect criminal contempt, with potential penalties of jail time, probation and monetary fines.

PFA orders are handled on the county-level, but become valid and legally-enforceable throughout Pennsylvania, the nation and in tribal courts across the country. Likewise, protection orders issued in other states are applicable in Pennsylvania. Moving? It’s not necessary to register an existing PFA order with another county or state, because the Violence Against Women Act, a federal law, requires all state courts to recognize protection orders issued by other states. Even so, notifying a local court in your new home jurisdiction could be a good idea (with a catch that we’ll cover in a moment). The primary benefit of registering your PFA order elsewhere is that police officers won’t have to contact other counties or states to verify it. Shorter response times are a natural result. The downside is that some states are required to notify the abuser when a protection from abuse order is re-registered outside of its original jurisdiction. That can be a hurdle for victims and families who want to conceal their new home from an abuser.

The Victim Must Cooperate

In order to recover compensation, victims are required to cooperate fully with all members of the criminal justice system, from investigating police officers and prosecutors to representatives of the Victims Assistance Compensation Program. Several “good cause” exceptions to this requirement apply. Victims who are mentally incapacitated, for example, may be excused for not being able to participate in the criminal justice system. Minors are treated similarly, as are victims who fear retaliation.

The Claim Is Filed Within Two Years Of The Crime

In most cases, victims will have to submit their claim for compensation within two years of the crime’s commission, although exceptions apply when a crime is either concealed or difficult to discover. In these cases, the claim must be filed within two years of its discovery. Crimes that result in death are also excluded from the general time limit. Surviving family members have two years from their loved one’s date of death or, in the case of murder, two years from the discovery and identification of their loved one’s body.

Minor victims are also extended more time. When the victim of a crime is under the age of 18, the two-year deadline only begins after they turn 23 or the applicable criminal statute of limitations has elapsed, whichever date is later.  Pennsylvania makes a critical distinction at this point. Only minor victims who were injured by a parent, a parent’s lover, a guardian or someone living in their household are eligible to secure full benefits from the Victims Assistance Compensation Program. When the offender isn’t a parent, guardian or housemate, children are only entitled to compensation for counseling services. Note that this distinction only applies when the child (or a guardian filing their claim) is applying for an extension of the two-year deadline. When a minor’s claim is filed within two years of the crime (or its discovery), the victim is entitled to all benefits, regardless of the perpetrator’s identity.

The Victim Did Not Cause Their Own Injuries

The Victims Assistance Compensation Program can deny a claim, or reduce an award, when a victim’s own actions contributed (or wholly caused) their injuries. A direct victim’s conduct will not be considered in cases of:

  • homicide (when a surviving claimant files for counseling expenses)
  • sexual assault
  • rape
  • domestic violence (unless the victim is deemed to have been the primary aggressor)

Generally, claims officers will only count illegal activity, when carried out by the victim, as disqualifying. Illegal conduct, however, is not immediately disqualifying. Some people who were injured by the criminal activity of another will still be able to secure compensation, even though they were engaged in unrelated criminal activity themselves at the time.

The Economic Loss Is At Least $100

Pennsylvania’s Victims Compensation Assistance Program will only cover claims that meet or exceed $100 in value.

A combination of various claims can satisfy this requirement. If, for example, you lost $30 in wages, $35 in prescription costs and $40 in transportation costs (to and from the courthouse), for a grand total of $105 in losses, your claim would likely be approved by the Victims Compensation Assistance Program. Lose out on fewer than $100, on the other hand, and your claim would probably be denied. The individual claims don’t need to exceed $100; it’s the total that counts. Worried that your total claim won’t meet $100? Don’t despair. Instead, reach out to a victim advocate. Good victim advocates will help you and your family find other eligible expenses to include in your claim.

The one exception to this “minimum loss” requirement is for victims over the age of 60. When someone 60 or older is injured due to a crime, there’s no requirement to claim $100 or more. Any amount of financial losses is eligible for compensation.

A “Payer-Of-Last-Resort”

Pennsylvania’s Victims Compensation Assistance Program is intended to provide money for victims’ out-of-pocket losses, financial losses that are not covered by other sources of financing. In other words, the Victim Compensation Assistance Program functions as a “payer-of-last-resort.” Victims are required to secure compensation from all other available sources beforePennsylvania’s state-run program will cover any claims. These additional compensation sources are known as “collateral resources”:

  • Medical insurance (private and public, including Medicare and Medicaid)
  • Life insurance policies
  • Auto insurance
  • Social Security benefits, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits
  • Civil lawsuit settlements
  • Sick and vacation pay
  • Workers comp
  • Pension plans
  • Court-ordered restitution

These compensation sources must be exhausted before the Victims Compensation Assistance Program will start paying benefits. Pennsylvania’s program is designed to cover health insurance co-pays and deductibles. In other words, the Victims Compensation Assistance Program will cover any medical expenses that insurance policies don’t cover, so long as the total claim meets or exceeds the minimum loss requirement of $100.

How Long Does It Take?

Actually receiving compensation can take a while, up to three months from the filing of an initial application. In certain circumstances, the Victims Compensation Assistance Program can issue an emergency award. These claims are given expedited review by the Program’s claims officers and usually paid out with three to five business days.

The maximum emergency award is $5,000 per claim.

Emergency awards are generally limited to victims (or families) who have suffered significant hardships because they had to pay for medical or funeral expenses out-of-pocket. The catch is that these expenses must already have been paid. Pending bills and outstanding debts don’t count. Emergency financing may also be available to victims who have lost wages or were financially dependent on a homicide victim. It could also apply to people who were stolen from or were defrauded out of their financial resources.

How Do I Apply?

You can file a claim with the Victims Compensation Assistance Program by yourself. Head over to Dependable Access for Victims’ Expenses (DAVE) and click “I am a crime victim.” From here, you can either submit a new claim or track the progress of an existing claim, using the claim number and PIN code issued after the claim was filed.

Alternatively, you can reach out to a local victim advocate for guided help. Just visit the Pennsylvania Office of Victim Advocate, click on the county you live in and call your region’s Victim Services office. You’ll also find helpful resources to find domestic violence shelters, district attorney’s offices and other victim services organizations in your area.

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