The woman who reached out to Danielle Tudor was not in a good place.
She had been attacked and raped in her home, and though her attacker was about to be sentenced for the crime, the lingering trauma and stress had caused her life to spiral, Tudor said. She had dropped out of school, she couldn’t stay in her home where the attack occurred, she couldn’t work, and to top things off her car had been totaled by an uninsured driver, Tudor said.
The woman reaching out to Tudor wanted help.
Tudor said the woman had asked about the Oklahoma Victims Compensation program — the state program mostly funded through a special court fee that was created by the Legislature in the 1980s to help ease the financial burden on victims of crime — but was told that in order to get counseling, she would have to first pay for the service up front and get reimbursed, or visit one of the free counseling services in the state.
“It basically destroyed her life. She was barely functioning, wanting to get help. When she reached out trying to get some type of victims compensation to get help she was told she would have to pay for it up front and be reimbursed,” Tudor said. “She basically had nothing trying to survive, and was told to pay for it up front or to find somewhere for free.” The woman, Tudor said, did not want to go to a free clinic to speak about the issue to a stranger.
Tudor, who herself is a survior of rape and is a member of the state’s Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Taskforce, said she brought the woman’s case up to the taskforce to try and get her help.
“How would she have known that if I had not done that piece of legwork for her? She wouldn’t have. And how many others are out there who have someone to contact and say ‘this is what I was told. How does this work?’” Tudor said.
An analysis of Oklahoma Victims Compensation Program data, as well as interviews, by The Frontier show that few sexual assault victims apply to the fund. But the data shows that even when adult sexual assault survivors do apply to the program, the majority are denied.
Nearly two-thirds of sexual assault victims who applied for funds from Oklahoma’s Victim’s Compensation Program between Jan. 1, 2014 and Dec. 31, 2018 were denied, according the data.
Most of the denials are because the applicants could or did not submit a bill to reimburse an expense, victims advocates said, often because they could not pay for services up front.
And for non-white adult victims of sexual assault, denial rates were even higher, according to the data.
For adult black victims of sexual assault, 21 cases in total, the Victim’s Compensation program denied 100 percent of applications where a final decision had been made. For American Indian applicants, the denial rate was 78 percent, the data shows.
White victims who applied for victim’s compensation funds had a denial rate of 54 percent, according to the data.
The Rev. Sheri Amore Dickerson, the director of Black Lives Matter OKC, called the denial rates for women of color “atrocious.”
“And it speaks to the additional trauma and offense that seems normalized against black women,” Dickerson said. “We are generally always last on the totem pole.
“This is something I think advocates and advocacy organizations and racial equity organizations need to be organizing around and at least highlighting there is an issue,” Dickerson said.
Dickerson said she has spoken with black women who were the victims of sexual violence and applied for Victim’s Compensation funds.
“I was pretty pessimistic, because I didn’t want her to have to feel the angst, and it’s humiliating,” Dickerson said. “The process itself, you’re having to relive and recount the trauma and violation in asking someone to help. They deserve and need therapeutic care.”
In addition to providing victims of violent crime with financial compensation for economic losses suffered as the result of a crime, Victims Compensation Program funds also pay for forensic sexual assault exams around the state.
From 2014 through 2018, the Oklahoma Victim’s Compensation program paid for nearly 9,700 rape exams at a cost of around $4.4 million, according to data. State law also allows the fund to pay for up to $50 worth of medication prescribed to the victim. After the rape exam, the victim is provided with information about how to apply for victim’s compensation funds, said Suzanne Breedlove, director of the Oklahoma Victim’s Compensation Program.
However, out of the thousands of sexual assault exams performed, only a fraction of the victims went on to apply for victims compensation funds, which could be used to pay for medical, counseling or other financial impacts that a victim of sexual violence may face.
“We’ve not ever had a push from anybody to pay for anything above the rape exam (without applying to the program),” Breedlove said. “We rarely have victims of sexual assault apply for victim’s comp or other expenses.”
There are numerous reasons for the high rate of overall denials for adult victims of sexual assault.
In some cases, the victim’s insurance company or the numerous services funded through the federal Victims of Crime Act might cover medical, counseling or other costs, Breedlove said.
If a victim is injured and requires medical attention as a result of the sexual assault, he or she must complete a full victim’s compensation application in order for the fund to pay for emergency or follow-up medical treatment, counseling services, loss of work or other expenses.
But if a victim fails to meet the program’s requirements — such as reporting the crime to police within 72 hours, cooperating with law enforcement and prosecutors, or submitting bills and receipts to the local victim’s advocate — the application will be denied.
The most often cited reason for denial of adult sexual assault victims’ applications was “no economic loss associated with the victimization,” which was listed as the reason in 43 percent of denials, according to the data.
Sometimes, after a rape victim has filled out the application for victim’s compensation funds, they never follow up, and do not send the required information, such as a hospital or therapist’s bill to the program.
“In my experience, the ones I have had to send that were ineligible, I never got a bill,” said Chelsea Jenkins, victim’s compensation advocate at the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office. “I try to wait on those and stay in contact, but sometimes we lose contact with them and don’t have a way to reach out to them over the years. So eventually, it gets denied.”
As a victim’s advocate, it’s Jenkins’ job to, among other things, help victims through the application process. But without having a bill of some sort to show a financial loss from the crime, there’s no proof of anything to compensate.
And some victims just want to move on, Jenkins said. In those cases, continuing to call or send letters requesting the information from the victim might prolong their pain, she said, so it’s sometimes a judgment call of when to stop.
“After so much time has passed, sometimes you don’t feel you have a choice but to close it (the claim) out because it’s just sitting there collecting dust because nothing is going on it,” Jenkins said. “I want to do what’s in their best interest, and I hope that I am, because sometimes it’s really hard to know.”
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said the emotional trauma of sexual assault is unique, and new state laws allowing a rape victim to decline to or delay having a rape kit processed by law enforcement is a reflection of that, though the passage of time makes investigating or prosecuting such cases more difficult, he said.
“We may get information and suggest to them, ‘if you’re thinking about going to counseling let’s get you going on that,’ and then you never hear from them again because they’re just not ready to deal with it,” Kunzweiler said.
Both the trauma and the stigma of sexual assault can make even filling out the required paperwork seem like an insurmountable task, Kunzweiler said.
“Sexual assault is one of the biggest violations of trust that can happen. It is very disruptive. I’ve seen its effect on children and it can be exacerbated as an adult,” Kunzweiler said. “Paperwork is the last thing they want to be dealing with.”
In other cases, the victim might be uninsured and unable to pay out of pocket for counseling or follow-up medical services, Jenkins said. If a victim can’t pay the medical or therapy provider up front, that means no service is rendered. And that means there is no bill to submit to the Victim’s Compensation Program, which cannot pay up-front for services, she said.
“I would say more often than not, a lot of counselors do want the money up front,” Jenkins said. “It’s a very difficult process to try and find one for the victims who don’t have the money.
“They’re in a profession too, so I understand their situation too. We’re not an insurance company, so we can’t guarantee payment. It’s a gray area for us.”
It is those same factors that often prevent rape victims from applying to the program or reporting the crime to police at all.
Though the program paid for nearly 5,655 adult rape exams between 2014 and 2018, the data shows that only 266 applications were submitted to the Victim’s Compensation Program for adult sexual assault during that time period, or one application submitted for every 21 adult rape exams performed.
Tudor said that’s probably many victims don’t know that services can be paid for through the fund, since there is no uniform way in which law enforcement agencies across the state notify victims of what is available to them.
“Survivors don’t know what they don’t know,” Tudor said. “Many don’t realize that money is even there.
During the most recent legislative session, House Bill 2639by Rep. Cyndi Munson, R-Oklahoma City, and Kay Floyd, D-Tulsa, had a provision requiring all medical facilities to provide a standardized document to victims of sexual assault outlining their rights as well as information about the Victim’s Compensation Act. The bill did not pass this session, but Tudor said she would like to see the provisions in the bill eventually enacted.
In other cases, victims do not want to report the crime to police — which is a necessary component of receiving assistance from the victim’s compensation fund.
“What we find is a lot of victims who will go for a rape exam don’t want to report to the police. In order to be eligible for victim’s comp, you have to report to the police,” Breedlove said. “So in some cases, we’re unable to help if there’s no police report.”
In about 20 percent of all adult sexual assault claim denials, and in 24 percent denials for black applicants, lack of cooperation with law enforcement or prosecutors was cited as the reason for denial.
“We know that sexual assault, the numbers have increased, or at least the number of reported “cases have increased,” Dickerson said. “The system is not set up where a lot of women feel safe reporting. The stigma that is placed on her as a victim is daunting.”
In 2015, a law passed in Texas that allowed the state’s victim’s compensation program to not only pay for sexual assault forensic testing, but would allow the state to pay for the emergency medical costs the victim incurred during the initial hospital visit. Unlike Texas’s victim’s compensation program, the measure does not require the victim to report the sexual assault to police, though applicants for emergency medical care compensation are not considered for other crime-related costs such as follow-up medical care, mental health care or lost wages.
Breedlove said there has not been a push for a similar program in Oklahoma.
Within the last few years, Breedlove said, the Oklahoma Victim’s Compensation Program has considered making changes to how sexual assault cases are handled by allowing the results of a rape kit as evidence of a crime in lieu of a police report for those who did not report to law enforcement, Breedlove said.
To do that, state law would have to be changed, but that suggestion was never taken up by the Victim’s Compensation Board, a three-member governor-appointed board that oversees the program, Breedlove said. Other states that have changed laws allowing sexual assault victims to be awarded victim’s compensation funds have been challenged in court, since it treats one type of crime differently than others, she said.
“In talking about that, especially with sexual-assault victims who don’t wish to report, the question came up about, ‘gosh there’s a lot of victims who don’t necessarily report out of fear, so would it be fair to just allow sexual assault victims not to report – this assault victim who is afraid for their life everyday has to report to get help?” Breedlove said. “So the board just decided to leave it alone and continue on the way we have been and not try to seek any statutory changes related to that.”
Tudor said the high number of denials is a sign that something is not right about the way the current system is operating.
“Those are hard, tough numbers we need to look at,” Tudor said. “I don’t know how you can look at numbers like that and see how that’s fair to anyone involved.”