The Mychal Moultry Jr. Funeral and Burial Assistance Program is supposed to give Illinois families with severe financial needs up to $10,000 to help bury children under 17 who were killed by gun violence. But almost a year after the measure went into effect, only eight people across the state have applied. Two of them have received funds.

That number is far below the 106 juveniles who’ve been fatally shot in Chicago alone since July 1, 2022, and whose families could have been eligible to apply for the funding. Across the state, 203 died in a similar manner. These unexpected deaths leave families to cope with overwhelming grief as well as thousands of dollars in burial costs. The statewide compensation program is meant to relieve families of these financial burdens but, despite the bill’s clear guidelines for how to publicize it, it’s reaching just a few applicants. The bill passed unanimously, but the program’s advocates were uncertain if the program was open a year later, until they were contacted by a Trace reporter.

Mychal Moultry Jr., known by his family as MJ, a four-year-old who was shot and killed as he got his hair done with his father. The Mychal Moultry Jr. Funeral and Burial Assistance Program was named after him.

Even Mychal Moultry, the father of the bill’s namesake, was unaware of its status. When he found out how few people have been able to use the program, he was incensed. “They gave us hope that his name will forever be known and he will be doing a positive thing, even though he’s not here today,” Moultry said, invoking his son’s legacy. “For them to go about it this way is an insult to me and his mother.” He’s glad it has helped two families, but asked what is being done to reach more of them.

The promise of help

Gun violence involving children in the state has only worsened. Between 2014 and 2023, gun homicides of children and adolescents under 18 in Illinois have grown 47 percent. “It’s happening so much, people are becoming numb to it,” Moultry said. “People shouldn’t have to be fearful going outside because they don’t want to see their child in danger of getting struck by a bullet.”

The Mychal Moultry Jr. program allows families whose income is up to one-and-a-half times the federal poverty level to apply jointly with their funeral and burial provider. Within a year of a child’s death by gun homicide, families can mail an application to cover up to $10,000 of funeral and burial costs, including that of a casket, urn, and memorial services. They must include a copy of the child’s death certificate, proof of income, and cost verification in the claim. Approved applicants receive funding within 30 days. If they don’t receive the money within 60 days, the state will start owing interest.

The program’s $5 million budget comes from the state’s General Revenue Fund, the same source as the Funeral and Burial Reimbursement Program

The Trace submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to find out more about the eight applications the program has received since its inception in July 2023. Three were denied because of missing documents and three were denied because they didn’t meet the eligibility requirements. Two of the applications came from Chicago funeral homes, and the rest came from elsewhere in Illinois.

The law appointed the Illinois Department of Human Services to run the program and requires it to create a brochure and make it available on its website. When asked about the plan for getting the brochure out, a spokesperson said via email, “We are finalizing a distribution date and the final number of brochures to be produced.” The department has also shared information about the program with its Reimagine Public Safety Act (RPSA) Violence Prevention Services grantees, who can help families fill out an application. Law enforcement is also required to inform families of the program.

Moultry is not impressed. “If money is just sitting there, why is it not going to people who need it?” he asked. “Why do people have to be required to have a certain income to have their child buried?”

Families are in need of immediate funds

Four-year-old Mychal Moultry Jr. was known to family as MJ. “He was a big light of joy,” said his father. MJ split time between Alabama, where his mother lived, and Chicago, with his dad. When MJ and Moultry were together, they would explore the world around them; his father often had to replace MJ’s beloved Lightning McQueen toys — he loved the movie “Cars” — that were lost on their trips. Whenever he had a bad day, Moultry said, MJ’s presence would immediately make it better. But during a visit to Chicago from Alabama on Labor Day weekend in 2021, MJ’s light was extinguished. 

MJ and his father went to get their hair braided in a Woodlawn home on September 3. Moultry remembers looking out the window as his son’s hair was being done. About 10 minutes later, bullets pierced the glass. Moultry moved MJ to another room before he noticed blood and realized that MJ had been shot in the head. He applied pressure to his son’s wound and called 911. MJ died two days later.

Mychal Moultry and his son, Mychal Moultry Jr. Courtesy of Mychal Moultry

Like many other kids in Chicago, MJ was the victim of a random shooting. “Shouldn’t no kid lose their life over something that has nothing to do with them,” Moultry said. Grainy video showed three assailants getting out of a car and shooting at the building, which Moultry later learned was not the intended target. Despite a $25,000 reward offered by then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot, no one has been arrested for MJ’s killing.

“No one expects their child to go before them,” Moultry said. People need help to process the situation, he added, and to pay for the costs that come with an unforeseen tragedy. Many families who face this situation end up in debt or are forced to seek help from family, friends, and organizations through fundraisers. The average cost of a funeral in 2023 in Illinois was over $8,000.

Moultry was unprepared for the costs of the funeral. He had thought about getting life insurance for MJ when he got a bit older, but didn’t think he needed it yet. Moultry applied for the Illinois Victim Compensation program, but he is still waiting for reimbursement for lost wages. Dr. David Nayak, founder and president of Strength to Love Foundation, an organization focused on medical accessibility, food insecurity, and gun violence, stepped in to cover all of the burial costs. Through Nayak’s help, Moultry was able to cremate his son and bury his remains in a Lightning McQueen themed casket.

“The bills still keep coming in,” Moultry said. “They don’t stop because you have a loss.”

Who carries the financial burden?

In 2020, while Nayak and his wife were volunteering at an afterschool program, one of their students was killed in a crossfire during a shootout outside the Cabrini-Green public housing development. The nonprofit they volunteered for asked them and others for donations to pay for the child’s burial costs. The Nayaks decided to cover it fully. This was a “lightbulb” moment for him, Nayak said, in which he learned about the timely and urgent need for money when a child is suddenly killed by gun violence. He also heard families talking about how finances dictated the way they laid their child to rest — some chose cremation because it’s cheaper than a burial.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and Dr. David Nayak hold the bill that created the Mychal Moultry Jr. Funeral and Burial Assistance Program. Nayak, founder and president of Strength to Love Foundation, authored the bill. Courtesy of David Nayak

Since then, Nayak’s organization has helped cover over a dozen funerals and burials for children who were fatally shot. But Nayak thought that the government should be helping, which led him to write the bill that created the Mychal Moultry Jr. Funeral and Burial Assistance Program. 

His goal was to make the program simple and accessible for families to work with their funeral and burial providers to get financial help from the state. And he wanted to improve on existing programs. Victims compensation uses a reimbursement model that makes families wait at least several months to receive any funds. So Nayak, along with legislators, created the funeral assistance program with a direct payment model designed to disperse immediate help. 

But, like Moultry, Nayak too did not know if anybody had benefited from the program since its passage. 

“Just because you pass a law and just because you implement a law doesn’t mean that that’s had an impact in the community,” Nayak said. He’s proud of their work, but feels more needs to be done to make sure more people know and have access to the program. Nayak noted that finding the application online is not easy. 

Moultry and his son’s mother now run a nonprofit called Martyr for Justice Project, which helps families navigate available resources after they’ve lost a child to gun violence, and hosts free events for children. But, so far, Moultry has found himself unable to advertise the program named after his son, because even he didn’t know where to find the application. He said he doesn’t understand why the program isn’t more accessible. Since it started “there’s been way more kids that have been murdered.”