Christie's neglect leaves crime victims without help | Moran

Seven days after the man returned home from prison, he was sitting on his porch on South 8th Street in Newark playing cards when a gunman came and shot him dead.

The police arrived in minutes, asked their questions and set off to hunt down the killer. The ambulance crew came and carried away the body. The yellow tape marking the crime scene was cut down and removed.

That was it, move on, folks. These things happen.

But it wasn't over, not by a long shot. LaKeesha Eure had seen this before, many times, and she knew that the violence was only the start of this story. So with a small group of volunteers who rush to these scenes, she stayed behind to help.

She started by getting a mop and cleaning up the blood.

"We just couldn't let it stay there," she said. "They took the body, they took down the tape, but they left the blood because it was in a private residence. And you don't just leave the blood there. You don't leave the blood."

In the United States, we spend a fortune catching criminals and holding them behind bars. And we spend pennies helping the victims cope with the carnage. Especially when those victims are poor, and black, and powerless.

The blood is the least of it. Every shooting leaves behind a shattered family, often coping with lost income, and often adrift when it comes to dealing with police, funerals or getting access to the little help the government does provide, such as burial costs.

The worst of it, perhaps, is the damage done to kids who witness it, who lose people they love, who are terrified, and rarely get help coping with the trauma.

"They can't process the anger, and the hurt," says Al-Tariq Best, a former rapper who founded a volunteer after-school programs for kids in Newark's Central Ward. "It's hard as an adult, so imagine what that's like for a child."

One shooting, he says, can start a cycle of violence when untreated trauma does its damage: "We are dealing with young people and teens who are taking all these drugs to medicate the pain," he says. "Then they're in a position to do something stupid. Hurt people hurt."

FEDERAL HELP

Congress, faced with testimony like this from across the country, decided in 2005 to dramatically beef up programs to help crime victims, quadrupling funding that goes to states through the Victims of Crime Act, known as VOCA.

Some states have used that bounty with energy and creativity, establishing trauma centers in poor neighborhoods, posting social workers at hospitals to intervene after shootings and stabbings, sending outreach workers to inner cities to form alliances with people like Eure, who helped found the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition.

That was a chance to turn this around, to start on a more sensible answer to crime, one with some balance.

And this is where the story turns from tragic to infuriating: The Christie administration has blown this one, too.

The state Attorney General's Office is using about one-third the money at local prosecutors' offices to offset costs related to crime victims, and funneling millions more into "miscellaneous" accounts they refuse to discuss.

Of the $59 million the state received in that 2015 money surge, only $21 million is sent to the community groups that actually deal with crime victims.

And it gets worse. Christie's crew also closed off all new applications this year. It's easier to just fund the same groups that have always received money.

"That's ridiculous," says Sandra McGowan, who ran the program for several years starting in 2004. "That's something I refused to do.

"So what if it's too much work? That's what we're here for. They absolutely have to be out in the community looking for these grass-roots groups. There is no question about that."

Attorney General Christopher Porrino refused to discuss the program, as did Phoenix Smith, who handles the day-to-day operations.

If they won't offer an explanation, I will: They are lazy, or they don't give a damn, or both.

ON THE FRONT LINES

If you want to engage with crimes victims and their families in Newark, you could start at University Hospital. Its emergency room treats roughly 1,000 cases of "interpersonal violence" each year -- shootings, stabbings and assaults.

No one in the Christie administration has picked up the phone to call, even after the surge in new federal money. And when an ER surgeon in the hospital floated a promising idea to help this year, she got the same answer as the community groups: No new applicants need apply.

"We do a lot of treat-and-release, directly from the ER, and we don't really offer any kind of assistance or support," says the surgeon, Dr. Stephanie Bonne.

Her goal is to start a "violence interruption program" modeled on successes in other states, in partnership with Mayor Ras Baraka's administration.

Many of her patients, she says, are caught in rivalries that make them victims one day and perpetrators the next. The idea is to get them off that path with counseling, mentoring, help finding a job, a home, a church -- whatever is needed.

"It's frustrating," she says. "When the victims of violence are unable to access federal funds earmarked for them, it victimizes them a second time.

"The people who are really affected are also the family members, or the younger siblings who see this. You're creating a perpetual problem."

Put aside all sentiment and think about the money.

"We've had patients who are in the hospital for a year," Bonne says. "That runs well into the millions."

Prevent one shooting and you might fund a robust program at the hospital for years. And you could help Eure and Best build that trauma center they dream about for kids in the Central Ward.

INVESTIGATING THE PROBLEM

The Christie's administration's neglect is starting to draw attention, as it works to disperse an even larger $61 million federal allotment for next year.

State Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) intends to hold hearings this spring. And the federal Department of Justice, which has received complaints from community groups and legislators, will visit Trenton in April to review the program. The Christie administration said the DOJ visit is routine and had no comment on Vitale's plans.

A key concern about the pause in taking new applications is that not enough money is getting to the victims of street violence in cities, most of them people of color.

Groups working on domestic violence and sexual assault were better organized historically, and able to capture a larger share of the grant money.

"We have programs in all 21 counties, and all or most of them receive federal dollars," says Nicole Morella, director of public policy at the Coalition to End Domestic Violence. "Both domestic violence and sexual assault groups had more lead time, and started advocacy in the '70s and '80s."

Victims of street crime are kicking into gear now and finding that the door has been slammed shut, freezing the inequity in place.

"We didn't know we could get VOCA funds," Eure says. "And when we did try to apply, they told us they had closed it."

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Rich Pompelio, former chairman of the state's Victims of Crime Compensation Board, said there is an imbalance today, and the answer is to stop sending so much money to prosecutors' offices, so that all victims can get more help.

"To me, direct services is what the (VOCA) Act is all about," he says.

To fix this, the first step has to be an audit of how the existing money is spent and what outreach is done, if any. The Christie administration, as always, is being secretive.

Elizabeth Ruebman, an organizer with New Jersey Crime Survivors, a nonprofit organization aimed at reforming all this, took Eure and Best and others to a meeting at the Attorney General's Office to discuss this.

"Other states are bringing in new applicants, doing outreach and recognizing that the people most impacted by crime are not being served," she says. "The feds realize this, so they're encouraging states to do more. Other states did. But New Jersey just sat there and gave money to the same people they've been giving it to in a two-year grant."

This has to change. In the Central Ward, Best is going ahead and building out space to house a trauma center, and getting training on how to run it. He needs money to build, to hire therapists, to create a space where locals can feel safe and tend their wounds. Eure has similar ambitions.

"If they just had a safe place to come and cry," she said. "I want a place where we can tell them to not retaliate, to tell police what you know. If I had a place, they'd come to stay until they figure things out."

My guess is that she'll get that someday, as will the others doing this work. These people are saints, rushing toward the chaos the rest of us run from.

The pity is that they are not getting help now. And for that, you can once again thank the absentee leadership of Gov. Chris Christie.

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