COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Two state lawmakers are skeptical that the cash in Ohio’s crime victim fund is finding its way to survivors of child sex abuse.

Administered by the attorney general’s office, the Ohio Crime Victims Compensation Program awards victims of violent crime up to $50,000 to cover out-of-pocket expenses like medical and psychological care. In the most recent fiscal year, the program gave out nearly $6 million.

But two Democratic lawmakers began to question how it was being handled after Republican Attorney General Dave Yost got a judge to reenact Ohio’s six-week abortion ban and weeks later cast doubt on initial reports that a 10-year-old rape victim left Ohio for an abortion.

“These awards are granted to victims at the discretion of the attorney general,” Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan (D-Youngstown) said. “He can actually implement some of his political agenda into this and overlook a victim’s actual need.”

Lepore-Hagan and Rep. Tavia Galonski (D-Akron) have introduced legislation designed to compel Yost to act faster. But his office is indicating that the bill may not change anything.

Bill proposes $2,000 in expedited funds for child sex abuse victims

Lepore-Hagan and Galonski introduced House Bill 732, the Protect Child Victims Act, to authorize the attorney general to expedite some of the funds by issuing child sex abuse victims in immediate need of assistance up to $2,000 in “emergency awards,” money that Lepore-Hagan argued should cover abortion services, too.

“We need to do everything we can, as Democrats in the Ohio General Assembly, to protect victims and protect and support people that need the government to work for them and to be the safety net for them,” she said.

Unlike the 120 days the attorney general has to review a nonemergency claim, emergency applications must be processed in two weeks, Columbus-based victims’ rights attorney Michael Falleur said. 

If the attorney general believes the child “will suffer undue hardship if immediate economic relief is not obtained,” the emergency $2,000 award may be granted, followed up with additional money as needed.

“’I don’t have money to pay my rent; I can’t keep my utilities on,’” Falleur said as an example of a victim who may qualify for an emergency award. “That’s when we can say, ‘Send us your disconnection notice, eviction notice, etc.,’ and [the attorney general’s office] can solely make a determination if you’re gonna get paid in the future.”

Child sex abuse victims made up nearly 10% of 2021’s approved claims

Bethany McCorkle, a spokesperson for Yost’s office, said the attorney general already has the ability to give the emergency funds to child sex abuse victims that the legislation proposes.

In fiscal year 2021, Yost’s office awarded nearly $6 million of its $9.5 million compensation fund, with the average individual award totaling $3,388, according to its 2021 Crime Victims Annual Report. Of the 1,753 compensation claims that were paid, 147 claims, or 8.5%, dealt with child sexual abuse, the report indicates. 

“The unit’s goal for the upcoming year is to make more people statewide aware of the compensation program and the assistance available,” Yost’s office said in its 2021 report.

The estimated lifetime cost of rape sits around $122,000 per victim when accounting for medical costs, lost work productivity, criminal justice expenses or other costs like property loss or damage, according to a 2017 Centers for Disease Prevention and Control report.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys will experience sexual abuse by an adult before their 18th birthday. RAINN reports that victims of child sexual abuse are four times more likely than their peers to develop substance use disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lepore-Hagan said HB 732 is designed to clarify who qualifies for an emergency award – and encourage the attorney general to double down on supporting victims. The attorney general’s office considers child sex abuse an “incident type” eligible for the compensation program, but it’s not explicitly mentioned in Ohio law pertaining to emergency awards.

“This bill would actually specify the emergency funds for child victims of sexual assault,” she said. “It also brings out public awareness so people know these funds are available. … It is another way of the government actually helping and providing care for children in need.”

Bill maintains AG’s power over emergency awards, attorney says

Falleur said he’d like to see a bit more teeth in HB 732, like restoring some of the Ohio Court of Claims’ authority over the program. Under the bill, the attorney general retains sole discretion over whether to pay the emergency awards, and there is no opportunity to appeal. 

“To that degree, 732 would be no different than what is in the statute already,” Falleur said. “I don’t see a Yost administration ever finding an emergency situation for this financial aid. The Court of Claims may disagree if given the opportunity.”

The court originally administered the program after its 1976 inception, but in 2000, Falleur said it was reassigned to the attorney general’s office. In his eyes, that change sparked a conflict of interest because it gives the attorney general – tasked with representing the state of Ohio – “too many hats.”

“They’re supposed to make an unbiased determination as far as reimbursement and they’re supposed to defend the state fund,” Falleur said. “How can you make an unbiased determination when you represent one of the parties in an adversarial proceeding? It’s really not possible.”

Tweaking the bill’s language to read, “the Attorney General shall make an emergency award,” as opposed to, “the Attorney General may make an emergency award,” could force the office to issue payouts to more victims, he argued.

Is abortion covered under the victims’ compensation fund?

McCorkle did not say whether Yost permits a victim to use the compensation fund to cover the cost of an abortion. Representing crime victims since the 1980s, Falleur said the office covered birthing expenses and likely covered abortion services in the past, “but certainly not in the last 20 years, not since the attorney general became involved.”

Rep. Jeff Crossman (D-Parma), who is challenging Yost in the attorney general race, pledged that if elected to the office, he would allow eligible victims to use the proposed emergency awards for an abortion.

“We can’t just force minor children to give birth to rapists’ babies and accept that as a fact of life going forward,” Crossman said. “These funds are there to support the medical care that young women and women and young girls need, and we should utilize those funds for that reason.”