NJ victims agency blames victims, rejects payments as office costs soar
EDISON — Cheryl Adamousky was devastated in February when she got the news that her 21-year-old daughter Jenna had been killed by a drunk driver.
A few months later, after she read a letter from the state, she was grieving all over again.
In April, the state Victims of Crime Compensation Office denied Adamousky's request for assistance for funeral and other expenses. Their reason? Jenna Adamousky is partly to blame, they said, for her own death because she got into a car with a drunk driver.
The fact that the driver, 20-year-old Ashley Gergits, had pleaded guilty — just days before the letter had been written — to second-degree vehicular homicide, two counts of fourth-degree assault by auto, and driving while intoxicated did not seem to matter to the victims board.
“The way they worded it, what it said, got me to my core," Adamousky said in an interview last week. "She should have known. What are you saying? I was just floored by the insensitivity of what they said about a tragic accident.”
Adamousky is not alone.
A New Jersey 101.5 review of state data shows that the office tasked with helping victims of violent crimes has been spending less and less on victims and denying more and more claims all while the costs to run the office and pay its employees have tripled in just three years.
The VCCO, which is funded by federal grants and millions of dollars each year from court fines and fees on inmate commissaries, will pay up to $25,000 for victims or relatives of victims of the most serious crimes, such as homicide, aggravated assault, domestic violence and robbery. The claims can be for medical expenses, funerals, mental health counseling, loss of income, child care, crime scene clean-up and relocation expenses. For victims of thefts and robberies who are at least 60 years old or disabled, the VCCO also will reimburse their losses.
In 2012, the VCCO received 3,830 claim applications and approved 44 percent of them, paying out $9.97 million.
By 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, the VCCO approved just 37 percent of 3,675 claims, paying $8.24 million.
For the VCCO to approve a claim, the victim must file within three years of the injury or death, the crime must have been reported within nine months, the victim must have cooperated with police and prosecutors, and the victim cannot be facing criminal charges for any other crime or have contributed to the injury.
In 2016, nearly half of the rejected claims were because the victims were facing charges or had warrants for a crime. About 7.5 percent were rejected because of "contributory reasons," the kind that scuttled Adamousky's claim.
Since 2013, the percentage of claims rejected because the VCCO did not find the victim to be "innocent" has steadily increased.
Claimants can appeal a VCCO decision to the board. In 2016, 11 people appealed. All of them lost.
While victims have been getting less, the VCCO has been spending more on itself, according to its annual reports.
In 2016, the office spent about $3 million on overhead, including $2.2 million on salary and wages, more than $704,000 on "services other than personnel," $95,000 on information technology, $65,000 on materials and supplies and about $15,000 on maintenance.
In 2014, these costs amounted to just $1.1 million.
Pension data from the Department of Treasury shows that the VCCO this year has 31 employees earning pensionable wages that total $1.88 million before overtime. Executive Director Alvin Ricardo Little earns $126,000 and Deputy Director Louise T. Lester earns $118,000. One other employee earns more than $100,000 before overtime.
'A bad bureaucracy'
Richard Pompelio, director of the New Jersey Crime Victims’ Law Center, says the VCCO started going downhill after the state moved the agency about a decade from the Governor' Office to the Attorney General's Office.
Pompelio, who served as chairman of the VCCO from 2003 to 2005 and became a champion of victims rights after his 17-year-old son was murdered in 1989, says New Jersey pays out less than Tennessee. He said New Jersey should double the amount it awards victims.
The average claim in New Jersey in 2016 was $3,606.
“They put people from the Attorney General’s office in there who really had really no experience, vision, knowledge about that agency," Pompelio said. “They took something that was working beautifully and just pretty much erased it and turned it into a bad bureaucracy. That’s what it is; that’s what it became.”
Elizabeth Ruebman, coordinator of New Jersey Crime Survivors, said that instead of supporting victims, the VCCO "operate(s) from the frame that they’re trying to disqualify the victims."
“If you look at their budget, this agency has a surplus, money that they don’t spend every year,” she said. “In fact, the director (of the VCCO) recently said they need to spend more because if they don’t hit a certain level of spending the federal government is going to cut back some of the money they give them.”
In 2016, the agency collected $4.8 million in court fees and another $2.5 million in commissary fees. The agency received $1.37 million in federal grants, a drop from the $10 million in federal grants received in 2014.
Ruebman says when crime victims apply for assistance, the barriers are so intense that many can’t handle the process. These are people who have just been through a trauma, often their life is in chaos, and the amount of paperwork that are forced to deal with is overwhelming.
“They don’t want to make it easy and they don’t want to be helpful. They want to try to kill the claim so you don’t get paid. That’s what the victims that we work with routinely say," she said.
She adds many crime victims who are dealing with horrible loss feel humiliated when they deal with VCCO.
“They’re not treated with any warmth, they’re not treated with any dignity, they’re not treated with compassion. It’s just like dealing with an insurance company that is actively trying to deny your claim.”
Sharon Lauchaire, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, declined to be interviewed about VCCO but issued a written statement suggesting that the agency's own annual reports, which are made available on its website, are misleading and inaccurate.
“Although it may appear that salaries have increased at VCCO due to the way that budgetary information was captured in previous annual reports, that is not the case. The number of VCCO employees, and the agency’s total salary expenses have remained stable," Lauchaire said.
"VCCO is in the process of updating previous annual reports to make uniform the way in which salaries are presented. In addition, claim payouts presented for fiscal years preceding FY 2016 are being restructured to reflect the way in which the FY 2016 and forward figures are presented.”
Lauchaire, however, did not provide New Jersey 101.5 with the numbers and totals that the office believes are accurate.
'How dare they!
Jenna's friend was driving drunk before midnight on Feb. 16. As she got to the bridge on River Road in Highland Park, she drove into an abutment and hit another car stopped at a red light, injuring two other passengers in her car and the other driver.
Last month, Gergits pleaded guilty in a deal that will send her to prison for eight years and take away her license for 15 years.
But then, a few days after Jenna's friend admitted responsibility, her grieving mother received a two-page note from VCCO Executive Director Little and Deputy Director Lester.
"The victim’s conduct in this case appears to have contributed to the unfortunate death," the letter says.
Even though Gergits had been convicted, the letter still refers to her as a "suspect."
"The victim and the suspect (driver) were out together at a bar/club," the letter says. "The suspect was drinking to the point where she became intoxicated. The victim decided to get into the car with the suspect knowing the suspect had been drinking. As such, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the victim knew or should have known that the driver was under the influence of alcohol."
Adamousky couldn't believe what she was reading.
“How can they say my daughter should have known what the condition of her friend was? If she was concerned she would have called me to come get her; that’s happened before. I was so irate when I got that letter. How dare they tell me my daughter did something wrong? Are you kidding me?"
Adamousky said help and support is not what she got from the state office that is meant to help and support victims and families.
“They’re insensitive, uncaring, harsh. There could have been so many different ways you told me something, but for you tell me it’s my daughter's fault she’s not here, to me is unforgivable. It’s not even human.”
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You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com