Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth - the Underutilization of Crime Victim Compensation Funds by Domestic Violence Victims

By Rutledge, Njeri Mathis | Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth - the Underutilization of Crime Victim Compensation Funds by Domestic Violence Victims


Rutledge, Njeri Mathis, Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy


I. INTRODUCTION

Every year, millions of individuals in the United States become victims of crime. (1) Crime imposes indirect burdens that impact communities and society at large. (2) Crime victims have countless needs, which may include medical treatment and counseling. The needs of domestic violence crime victims are even more acute because, in addition to medical treatment and counseling, they may also need shelter, relocation assistance, and in some circumstances, food and clothing. (3) Over twenty-five years ago, Congress enacted the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 ("VOCA"), which addressed some of the needs of victims of violent crime, including domestic violence victims. (4) VOCA provides federal funding to eligible state Crime Victim Compensation ("CVC") programs. (5) CVC programs directly reimburse victims for crime-related expenses and are sponsored by the federal and state governments. (6)

CVC programs incorporate principles of distributive and restorative justice by addressing the harm and economic burden of victimization. (7) Distributive justice involves the "fair distribution of common burdens and benefits," (8) while restorative justice focuses in part on community involvement to address the harm experienced by victims. (9) Justice for crime victims "requires that society take responsibility for making the victim whole again. Emergency financial assistance, medical care, legal services, and justice are the rights of every victim and the moral obligation of society." (10)

Crime can have a lasting impact on a victim physically, emotionally, and economically. Domestic violence is no different than other crimes in this regard; however, domestic violence is particularly complex because the victim is in an intimate relationship with the offender. Despite the unique financial assistance CVC funds can offer domestic violence victims, (11) the standards for distribution may have a depressive effect on the number of domestic violence related claims that are filed. (12) When victim compensation programs were first enacted, there was an inherent bias against domestic violence victims because programs feared that providing compensation to a domestic violence victim would only result in enriching the batterer. (13) To overcome this bias, VOCA expressly prohibits the denial of "compensation to any victim because of that victim's familial relationship to the offender or because of the sharing of a residence by the victim and the offender." (14) Nonetheless, despite the prevalence of domestic violence and VOCA's inclusive language, domestic violence victims remain one of the most underrepresented groups receiving CVC funds. (15)

The underutilization of CVC funds by domestic violence victims, and the barriers to compensation, may lead one to ponder the true purpose of CVC funds and to ask whether the funds are merely a charitable gift or a humanitarian obligation to crime victims. A gift can be withheld or distributed as the government sees fit, but an entitlement must be distributed fairly. This article contends that the goal of CVC funds should be victim assistance due to society's moral obligation to assist crime victims, including domestic violence victims. While such an argument should perhaps not be controversial, the eligibility requirements suggest that CVC funds have a competing goal of promoting law enforcement efforts. Helping victims and law enforcement efforts are not naturally competing goals, but in the case of domestic violence, they can be. An old proverb cautions against looking a gift horse in the mouth, suggesting that it is improper to criticize or examine a gift to assess its value. (16) Instead, the recipient is encouraged to be grateful for the gift without questioning it. CVC funds are an important resource for all crime victims, but they are also similar to a gift horse (17) that requires further examination in the context of domestic violence.

This article seeks to identify and explore the underlying theories behind CVC funds and the barriers preventing domestic violence victims from utilizing them. …

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