Funding Source Gone, Stoneman Douglas Mental Health Advocates Ask To Extend Victim Compensation

Jul 15, 2019

The state of Florida recently passed a bill that gives most victims of crimes three years to get help paying for recovery and support services—like mental health care to identify and treat trauma related to the crime.

Previously, the state deadline to receive services that could be reimbursed was—with a few exceptions—one year. The new law takes effect October 1st, 2019 and it's not retroactive. Funding for victim compensation programs comes from court fines and fees and federal grants, but the Florida Crimes Compensation Trust Fund is in the process of capping reimbursements as it struggles with solvency.

All of this means that most of the kids and staff who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018 can no longer get their mental health care paid for by victim compensation funds.

A group of parents and therapists in the community want state legislators to expand access to this funding for trauma treatment. A petition sponsored by Professionals United for Parkland, a trauma therapy network developed in the aftermath of the shooting, is asking for an extension of the deadline to get victim compensation funding for mental health care.

"We know, from research on veterans, that PTSD symptoms can arise anywhere from several months to a year—or beyond—after the actual event. And so it's really short-sighted to think that 12 months is the limit," says Dr. Nicole Cook, an epidemiologist with Nova Southeastern University who studies behavioral health and access to care. Cook is the mother of three children, two of whom witnessed the shooting at Stoneman Douglas.

She spoke to Health News Florida about why she wants to see more money and more time for survivors to get help. You can listen to that conversation here:

WLRN reached out the Florida Office of the Attorney General. A spokesperson encouraged anyone who is having trouble to call the Division of Victim Services at (850) 414-3300. There's more information about victim resources at myfloridalegal.com/directory.

Here are some edited excerpts from the Health News Florida interview with Dr. Cook:

Dr. Nicole Cook is an epidemiologist. Two of her three children were at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on the day of the shooting.

WLRN: Even if all of the survivors had sought care and been diagnosed in that 12-month time frame, do we have enough resources for them? 

COOK: We definitely don't have enough resources for them. There is a huge lack of resources in Florida for behavioral health counselors.

And honestly, if you go out there right now, it's very, very hard to find care. In our case, we have insurance. And as you go through the list of providers, even if they say that they take new patients, most of the providers do not take new patients. And the waiting lists are exceptionally long.

And that is even before we begin to speak to if they're actually trained to deal with PTSD and the trauma among adolescents.

What do you want the legislature to know about what these kids need? 

There is a very big definition in Florida between physical injury and mental health injury.

In our case, they don't even consider it mental injuries, they only consider them as having been a witness. And those witness benefits ended after one year.

It's like services just stop. Or you've got to fork up the dollars.

Again, there's a huge need for behavioral health care in Broward County. So it's costly. We pay $175 for one of my children. My other children, we've got a sliding fee scale. That sliding figure is $175. We pay $275 for the psychiatrist.

So when the legislature created that rule, they probably didn't anticipate that we would have thousands of children that were affected by a school shooting at risk of PTSD.

I want to stress: 20 percent of Americans are struggling with psychological distress. Among this population, it's going to be 30, 40, 50, 60 percent of these kids.

It is crushing for those of us in public health to be thinking about it.

What are the changes that you'd like to see made:

I would like Florida to extend the filing for the Victim Compensation Fund to five years from the crime. It is unrealistic to think that people would have the wherewithal to complete the application within 12 months. Also, it's well-documented that many people don't seek care until years after experiencing a traumatic event.

I would like Florida to extend the benefits to minors and adults with PTSD, to consider them as mental injury instead of just witnesses.

And extend that minimum. …  $5,000 per year for five years to cover effective mental health treatments, including pharmaco-therapy and tele-mental health.

If we're going to put our students on the front line of the gun control debate, and have to send them to school every single day, at a minimum we should be able to provide them care.

Two of your three children witnessed the shooting at Douglas. One of her daughters watched classmates die. Unless something in the law changes, victim compensation won't reimburse any therapy they've received since the first anniversary. What are your children's long-term needs as survivors?

They're both still in care. … In our case, we don't need to just set up a college fund, we need to set up a fund for our kids for the rest of their lives.

What happens when my 14 year old, who saw three people shot and bleed out in her classroom, has children of her own?

A number of people from Columbine came down and spoke to us. As they grew up, they realized that their PTSD symptoms hit them when they came to drop their own children off at school a generation later.