Support increasing for children who witness violence

By Janine Weisman
August 18th, 2017

Rhode Island is now the second state in New England after Connecticut to cover expenses for psychiatric care and mental health counseling for children who witness homicides or domestic violence, regardless of whether or not they are a family member of the victim.

On June 27, the General Assembly passed legislation introduced by House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick) and Sen. Hanna M. Gallo (D-Dist. 27, Cranston, West Warwick) that would expand Rhode Island’s Crime Victim Compensation Program to include support for minors who witness homicides or domestic violence.

Gov. Gina Raimondo signed the measure into law on June 30. It caps reimbursement for expenses at $1,500 per minor victim, in line with adult victims.

The law now allows a “secondary victim,” defined as a child who suffers an emotional injury as a direct result of witnessing a homicide or incident of domestic violence, to apply for compensation.

“It will definitely make a huge difference for the families that need those services. That’s why it’s a great piece of legislation,” said Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence Executive Director Deborah DeBare.

Every state covers mental health counseling for victims of crimes, but there is wide variation said Dan Eddy, executive director of the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards. While “a substantial majority” have compensation for children who witness domestic violence, Eddy said it is less common that coverage applies to children who are not family or household members.

Exposure to violence as a child can lead to long-term health consequences. A 2008 CDC study found that as the frequency of witnessing domestic violence increased, the risk of alcoholism, substance abuse, depression and serious health problems also increased.

A 2005 study found a link between witnessing family violence and a greater risk of having allergies, asthma, stomach problems, headaches and the flu.

The push to expand eligibility to secondary victims in Rhode Island arose from a case involving a child in Pawtucket exposed to violence against a cousin, according to Evan England, director of communications for the Office of the General Treasurer.

England said Rhode Island’s new law is not expected to have any significant impact on the state’s general revenue budget. The U.S. Department of Justice covers about 60 percent of Crime Victim Compensation Program, with the balance typically covered by fees recovered by the Rhode Island Court System.

In 2012, the state of Connecticut added children who witness domestic violence to those eligible for restitution to receive medical, psychiatric, psychological and social services. The amount is presently capped at $2,000, and eligibility includes non-relatives such as a neighbor or friend of the adult victim.

Before 2012, only relatives of an adult victim of domestic violence were eligible for restitution as part of the same application of the victim.

Connecticut’s cap will increase to $5,000 effective Oct., 1, 2017, under a new law expanding the powers and duties of the Office of Victim Services to include awarding additional funds for personal injury for minors with additional medical or mental health counseling needs.

Personal injury awards had previously been limited to those who needed counseling after being physically injured but now include emotional injuries as well.

Massachusetts compensates for counseling expenses for children who witness domestic violence against a family member or guardian. Children would join in their family member’s claim up to a maximum total award of $25,000 in compensable expenses or $50,000 if the family member was catastrophically injured.

There is no cap within the total amount that can be awarded for mental health counseling expenses.

Vermont’s program offers compensation for supportive counseling for an adult or child who must live with the primary victim of domestic violence and witnessed abuse. There is a $10,000 cap on overall compensation.

Maine reimburses for mental health counseling expenses for children who witness domestic violence but they must be a family or household member. Maine pays out a maximum of $15,000 for all expenses in a case.

New Hampshire covers children who witness domestic violence within the family and also children, who have not directly witnessed a crime, but who have an immediate family member who is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or a violent crime.

The child must be an immediate family member who suffered a loss as a result of an eligible crime. Counseling expenses are capped at $3,000 or 40 visits, whichever comes first. However, the program has the ability to provide additional counseling sessions based on information provided from a licensed therapist or crisis center advocate, said Lisa J. Lamphere, coordinator of the Victims’ Compensation Commission at the Office of the Attorney General.

“Our commission … may approve a claim for a child who witnessed domestic violence from a neighbor or friend, but this exact situation is not addressed in our administrative rules,” Lamphere wrote in an email. “Our program continues to evolve and takes a trauma informed approach to working with crime-victims.”

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