Violent crimes often leave a wake of financial stress for the person who was victimized. To ease the strain, every state maintains a crime victim compensation fund, which reimburses survivors for medical bills, mental health counseling, lost wages, and funeral costs, among other expenses.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. In practice, only a fraction of all crime victims apply for compensation — in part because many do not know it exists. Gunshot survivors, whose injuries are particularly expensive, could be missing out on vital financial help.

Conversations I had with dozens of gun violence survivors for a feature article on the shortfalls of victim compensation programs revealed that many were confused or misinformed about how to access funds. While the rules and applications vary by state, the process typically consists of seven core steps.

Step 1

Research what kinds of bills compensation programs do and do not cover

Victim compensation only pays back expenses not covered by another financial resource, like health insurance, life insurance, or worker’s compensation. For example, if Medicaid covers your medical bills, victim compensation won’t cover them too (some programs will cover co-pays or deductibles, however). If you don’t have another form of coverage, you might be able to get help for these crime-related expenses:

  • Medical and dental bills
  • Lost wages
  • Mental health treatment
  • Funeral and burial expenses

Along with rules for what kinds of costs victims can receive compensation for, each state also has limits on how much it can reimburse. In addition to medical expenses, the majority of state compensation programs cover costs related to travel for court appearances and medical appointments, crime-scene cleanup, and attorney fees. Florida’s program covers $500 in property loss, Iowa covers up to $1,000 in child care, and New York covers a maximum of $2,500 for moving expenses.

Keep your receipts! As we explain below, you may need to give them to the compensation program as part of your application.

Step 2

Learn if your case qualifies for compensation

In reporting my story, I heard a lot of rumors and misconceptions about who compensation programs are and are not for, and how they do or do not work. The eligibility rules vary by state, but generally you must:

  • Have been physically or emotionally harmed in a crime
  • Report the crime to law enforcement by a certain time
  • Apply for compensation within a specific time period
  • Cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation
  • Not have contributed to your own victimization

Even if your case doesn’t check all those boxes, your state’s compensation program may be able to make an exception. For example, if you want to apply for victim compensation after the deadline has passed, program administrators might waive that requirement for “good cause.” Administrators we interviewed said that when in doubt,  the best thing you can do is apply — it’s the only way they can consider your specific circumstances.

Step 3

Look up your state’s compensation office

Every American state and territory has its own compensation office. To find your program’s contact information, visit the Office for Victims of Crime website, and click on your state or territory. On the first tab, you’ll find contact information for your state’s program.

Note: States offer two main types of help for victims: victim compensation (direct financial reimbursement) and victim assistance (services that support victims). If you’re interested in applying for direct reimbursement, victim compensation is what you want. If you want to see what services or organizations might be in your area, or want some help filling out the application, reach out to victim assistance.

Step 4

Fill out the application

Your state’s compensation website should have a link to the application, either to fill out by hand and or online, or both. Generally, the application asks for your basic information, how you got injured, whether you have medical insurance, and what types of bills you’re seeking reimbursement for.

Here are examples of applications for Pennsylvania, Missouri, Florida, and California.

Step 5

Gather your documents

Some applications will ask you to attach supporting documentation of your crime and its related expenses. They might include:

  • The police report for the incident
  • Copies of crime-related bills and receipts for medical, dental, or counseling services (save the original documents for your records)
  • Pay stubs if you’re applying for lost wages

Crime victim compensation is set up as a reimbursement system — you have to spend money before you can be paid back. But you also don’t have to wait until you’ve paid all the bills related to your injury before you can apply. Instead, apply as soon as you’re ready — the compensation program will open your case, and you can submit bills and receipts as you get them.

Step 6

Ask for help

Being shot is a traumatizing experience, and it can be hard to manage an application for compensation with all the other things going on. If you need assistance getting started or have questions about applying, ask someone who’s familiar with the process. Here are some resources that should be able to guide you:

  • The hospital or rehabilitation center where you were treated. Ask for a social worker, case manager, or victim advocate.
  • The local prosecutor’s office. Most have a victim-witness advocate on staff, whose job it is to help victims with things like applying for compensation.
  • Anti-violence advocates in your neighborhood or city.
  • Law enforcement should be aware of compensation, and be able to direct you to someone who can help.

Step 7

Follow up

At some point after you’ve applied for compensation, your local office should send notice that it has received your application. You might be asked for additional documentation or information. One of the most common reasons people get denied is incomplete information. Stick with the process — it may take a while, but can help in the end.

“I think a lot of people fall through the cracks because they don’t understand how they qualify,” said Claudiare Motley, a gunshot survivor who received compensation from Wisconsin’s program. “It does take a lot of persistence.”