For decades, Massachusetts, along with other states, have provided funds to victims of violent crimes to pay for things like counseling, medical care and lost wages. But advocates for victims of childhood sexual abuse have argued the state’s deadline for filing a funding application hurts those victims.
Some elected officials agree.
The funding to compensate victims of violent crimes comes from the state budget, and from criminals —convicted federal offenders who have paid penalties or fines.
Massachusetts typically pays out more than $3 million a year to victims. Each victim can be compensated up to $25,000 and, in the case of catastrophic injury, up to $50,000.
To be eligible, victims must apply for the funding within three years. Three years of the crime, or three years after a child victim turns 18, or within three years of filing a police report or after a criminal complaint or an indictment.
"To think that three years is enough time is to ignore the enormity of the victim's trauma," said Jackie Humphreys, a South Deerfield therapist who works with clients who have been sexully abused as children.
Humphreys previously worked in the Northwestern district attorney's child abuse unit. She said not only is the three-year window too short, but — in her experience — most victims don’t know the fund is there for them.
"When they are able to recognize what they need and recognize that they can't afford what they need, and that there's this fund, it's too late," Humphreys said.
That’s what happened to a client of Humphreys’, who is in her twenties. As a young teen, she was raped. The perpetrator was found guilty and did time. Now he’s out.
"She continues to be very anxious whenever she's alone in her apartment," Humphreys said. "She won't go out for a walk. She said if she was able to have an emotional support animal she would feel safe enough to go for a walk."
But she can’t afford an emotional support dog and can’t get victim compensation. Humphreys said in the years after the rape, her client’s life and her family were thrown into a state of chaos and they never applied to the fund.
“She, as a teen, testified. She did her part in getting this abuser incarcerated. And it was horrible for her. It was a very, very painful process for her, but she did it," said Humphreys. "And then she finds out that she is not eligible for money that is set aside for exactly people like her.”
Carmen Durso, a Boston-based attorney, specializes in childhood sexual abuse cases. He represents people who have been sexually abused in suits against perpetrators and the institutions — such as schools and the Catholic Church — where the abuse occurred.
"I don’t believe that people who suffer trauma should have any time limits on them within which they have to exercise their rights,” he said.
"There are many people who tell me they've been to police stations, they've been in district attorneys' offices, and for one reason or another they didn't know about the victim fund," Durso said. "Now it may be that someone told them, but it may also be that their state of mind was such they just simply couldn't absorb it with everything else that was going on."
Durso said a person should not be held to a strict time period if they didn’t know about it.
Massachusetts is a state with one of the longer deadlines. Most require filing within one year, but a few states have no time limits, according to the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards.
State representative Kenneth Gordon filed a bill to amend Massachusetts law so that the three-year clock would start when child sexual abuse survivors first make a connection between the abuse and the harm they suffered.
"They don't realize the reason that I'm having difficulty in relationships, difficulty in my marriage, difficulty in other things is because of what happened to me when I was a teenager or even before that," explained Gordon, about victims. "They just don’t connect the two."
Gordon’s bill would allow a victim to apply beyond three years if they have a report from a mental health professional. The bill didn’t move forward, but Gordon said he’ll file it again.
The bill could’ve helped a 50-year-old man who grew up in the Berkshires.
He said at age 9 he was sexually abused by two men who worked in a Sheffield elementary school. It wasn’t until nearly 40 years later that the man talked about the abuse for the first time and filed a police report.
"And that was like the beginning of getting better," he said.
We’re not naming the man, at his request. His mother put up two billboards in Great Barrington to find out if there were other victims.
He said he didn’t learn about the victim compensation fund until the Berkshire District Attorney’s office called him in 2019, when the three years were almost up. He was told the fund could help pay for mental health therapy, but he didn’t realize he had a deadline.
Last July, he and his mother sent his application first to the DA’s office, asking them to make sure it was filled out correctly and to then file it with the state. They included a stamped envelope addressed to the Victim Compensation and Assistance Division of the state Attorney General's office.
"Just to kind of have them double check to make sure that I dot the i's and cross the t's in the right way or whatever," he said. "And it just kind of got lost in the sauce is basically what happened."
The application was denied because it arrived at the A.G.’s office three weeks too late: three years and three weeks after the man reported the crime to the police.
Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington would not confirm or dispute that her office failed to send the letter in a timely manner. But she did say she supports changing the law for child sexual abuse victims.
"It's really, really critical that we provide services to victims when they need it, whether they're asking for it within a three-year time window or they're asking for it within a 30-year window of time," Harrington said.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said she is open to supporting a change in the law to lengthen the deadline, but she said it’s not an issue that’s come up frequently for her office.
In fiscal years 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, federal reports show between 11 and 19 applications to the fund were rejected each year because they weren’t submitted on time. That’s about 1% of all Massachusetts applicants, but that doesn’t include people who figured out they were too late and didn’t apply.
"This is the first time I'm engaging on the subject, to be honest, Nancy. So I just would like to spend some more time studying it, looking at it, learning, talking to others," Healey said in an interview. "But just based on what I know, I do believe that we should be open to extending this and making whatever modifications are necessary so that victims and survivors are served."
The survivor from the Berkshires said having his application denied makes him question whether reporting his abuse even mattered.
"Was it even worth standing up and saying something even happened?" he said. "I mean, there's totally this lack of responsibility by the state to say, you know, we don't tolerate this."
No criminal charges have been filed against the school employees he accused. The man said he has to work to trust people — and that he’s trying to get his soul back.