Mothers who lost sons to violence and were denied state assistance to bury their children pleaded with the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday to change the state’s victim compensation statute so other families don’t have to go through the pain they said they experienced.
“Many families are re-traumatized when they are eventually denied by Victim Compensation because of a clause in the state statute that requires a family’s claim be reduced or denied in the event their loved one ‘contributed to’ their own death,” the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute said. “When families are denied Victim Compensation, they’re punished for their loved one’s actions.”
State law says the attorney general’s office “shall reduce or deny an award” if “the victim’s acts or conduct provoked or contributed to the injuries.”
Rep. Evandro Carvalho, a former Suffolk County assistant district attorney who represents part of Dorchester, filed a bill (H 742) to give the attorney general’s division of victim compensation and assistance discretion in determining whether a family’s compensation should be reduced or denied, changing the “shall” to a “may.”
Tina Chéry, founder and president of the Brown Peace Institute, said money in the victim compensation fund comes from offenders, not taxpayers, and that families typically receive about $8,000 for burial expenses and sometimes are eligible to have other expenses reimbursed.
Carvalho said his bill is intended to help in situations where the attorney general’s office may base its decision on the limited information available immediately following the death, or when the police and/or the media describe the deceased as having “a lengthy criminal record” or as “a known offender” -- things that he said factor into the decision to deny a family assistance.
One such case involved Tyerelle Baker, who was killed in Brockton in 2012. Baker’s mother, Sharon Baker, told the Judiciary Committee that she was denied assistance three times because her son had been facing drug-related charges at the time of his death. But when he was killed, the case ended and he was never convicted on those charges.
Baker said she had to “beg, borrow thousands of dollars from anyone” so she could lay her son to rest.
“I was told that there was a fund that could assist me in burying my son. This was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, but that feeling did not last long,” she said. “The first letter I received was a denial letter ... my son was murdered in the commonwealth of Massachusetts and I was being denied the right to bury my son. I thought it was the end of the world.”
Carla Sheffield told the committee that her son, 26-year-old Burrell Ramsey-White, was shot and killed by the Boston Police Department in August 2012 and that she was denied assistance in burying him.
“My experience with Victim Compensation was horrible. I believe the words ‘police involved shooting’ assisted in their hasty decision,” she said.
“Victim compensation wrote that my son was in the commission of a crime so he did not qualify for assistance. I appealed the decision and questioned where they got their information from because according to the police report my son was killed in a routine traffic stop.”
Sheffield said the original denial was rescinded and her application was moved into the pending category. But when the Suffolk County district attorney’s office cleared BPD of any wrongdoing in Ramsey-White’s death, her application was again denied.
“I feel the process was unprofessional, insensitive, uncompassionate and very judgemental when it came to my family. The impact it had on my family was horrible,” Sheffield said. “My family had to stand on the corner with a bucket in front of Boston Police headquarters asking for dollars to bury my son. I literally had to beg for money to bury my child after he was shot and killed by several Boston police officers.”