This story was originally published in Flatwater Free Press.
On October 12, 2020, Kuuleilani Zalopany was at work, shingling a roof in La Vista, when Bellevue police drove up and delivered life-altering news: Her son, 17-year-old Kalani, had been robbed and shot in her home. Her son was dead.
She made an ear-piercing noise, a sound so jarring that the rest of the roofing crew scrambled down ladders to check on her.
“I’ve never screamed like that before and, hopefully, will never ever do it again,” she said.
The police drove her to the station, put her in a padded room and brought her three other children, one by one, so she could deliver the news.
In the dark, disorienting days that followed, a hint of hope: An advocate with the Sarpy County Attorney’s Office handed Zalopany a brochure on the state-run Crime Victim’s Reparations program, created to reimburse survivors of violent crime for expenses like medical bills, lost wages and counseling.
It’s a program meant to help Nebraskans who have been raped, abused, assaulted — or loved ones like Zalopany, reeling from the killing of a child.
But it’s also a program with a litany of problems, according to a survey of people who serve victims and several advocates who spoke to the Flatwater Free Press — a program, they say, that’s simply not delivering enough help to Nebraskans who sorely need it.
Nebraska’s program aids only a tiny fraction of crime victims when compared to most neighboring states.
It takes, on average, nearly half a calendar year to decide on claims, meaning that even families who receive money can wait in limbo for months.
It’s been awarded less federal money meant for victims than all but two states in the past five years — because that money is linked to how much state money is spent, and Nebraska spends so little.
The numbers reflect the frustration outlined in a recent legislative report and stories told by advocates fed up with what they view as a broken system. A young rape victim denied funding because her dad applied a day too late. A man, hit and killed by a car while standing in his front lawn, whose family was denied funeral costs because the act wasn’t intentional — even though the driver was later convicted of motor vehicle homicide.
And an Omaha mom who requested $5,000 to pay for her slain son’s memorial service and burial. A mom who instead got zero dollars.
That mom is Kuuleilani Zalopany.
“Devastated,” she said, about her reaction when she received the final denial. “Beyond livid.”
‘Robbing Peter to Pay Paul’
A quick glance at Nebraska’s neighbor to the east illustrates just how far Nebraska lags behind.
Iowa approved the applications of almost 5,700 crime victims in the past two years for which data is available, using a mix of state money and federal dollars available to all 50 states.
In that same two-year period, Nebraska approved the requests of 118 victims.
Iowa paid victims $10.4 million. Nebraska? $561,000.
“The CVR program is, quite simply, not operating as the Legislature intended … victims, as well as health care providers, are being left to bear the burden of a program designed to help them (that’s) currently failing in almost every way to do so,” said Erin Feichtinger, policy director for the Women’s Fund, at a recent hearing for a bill meant to improve the program.
Nebraska, like every U.S. state, has “broad latitude” to decide who is eligible for compensation and how much money they can receive, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Nebraska’s program is overseen by the state’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, which since 2019 has been run by executive director Don Arp Jr. He made $103,000 last year, and new Gov. Jim Pillen retained him in the role.
Presented with data showing Nebraska’s program helps far fewer victims of crime than nearby states, Arp wrote in an email that it wasn’t a cause for concern. He said comparing Nebraska to other states “would not be helpful” since each state has its own rules and requirements.
“I know our program is serving crime victims well,” he wrote.
Several Nebraska state senators, presented with that same state-by-state data, weren’t so sure.
Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, a Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, called the numbers “alarming.”
“We’re not investing in criminal justice reform and, overall, in our criminal justice system — from victims to reentry to preventative. We’re just, as a state, not doing a good job of it,” he said.
Sens. John Fredrickson and Wendy DeBoer, both Omaha Democrats who introduced bills related to CVR this year, questioned if the program is accessible enough. (Read more about the crime victim bills in the Nebraska Legislature.)
Sen. Rob Clements, a Republican from Elmwood, and Sen. Terrell McKinney, an Omaha Democrat, wondered if Nebraska crime victims even know the program exists.
This was the first time any of the senators who spoke to the Flatwater Free Press had seen the data, and they all had questions about the program and how states differ.
“It’s surprising that we’re so much lower than nearby states,” said Clements, chair of the Appropriations Committee. “I hadn’t seen that before.”
Arp isn’t concerned about Nebraska’s claim volume, saying that “community partners, hospitals, care providers and advocates all know about the program.” He does hope to use state funding to hire another full-time employee, which would allow for more outreach.
Advocates who spoke with Flatwater said they’re often hesitant to recommend that Nebraska crime victims apply, because they believe the program’s denial is inevitable.
It denies about 50% of applications.
A perceived shortage of money is one reason victims don’t apply in the first place, said Sarpy County Attorney Chief of Staff Jean Brazda.
“We really have to put that asterisk there (when we tell people about CVR), saying, ‘Yes, it’s available, but don’t hold your breath,’” she said.
Teshawna Sawyer, associate director of Grand Island-based Willow Rising, said that a few years ago, after repeated denials, she stopped recommending the domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking victims she works with in central Nebraska apply for the funding.
The state’s program, she told the Flatwater Free Press, seems like “this elusive thing that we never actually get to work.”
When funds are denied, advocates get creative.
Rather than applying to CVR to cover costs such as crime scene clean-up, Brazda said, an advocate may find them food assistance from a local nonprofit, so they can use their grocery money for clean-up.
“It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she said.
A ‘callous’ denial?
When Zalopany heard about the program, she assumed it would work for her family. The cap for funeral cost reimbursement — what she sought — is only $5,000.
That sounded like a “breath of fresh air,” she said in an interview.
She compiled and submitted the required materials, including details about what happened to her son, a copy of his death certificate and itemized funeral receipts.
Claims like Zalopany’s are investigated by one staff member and evaluated by Arp, the program’s only “hearing officer.”
Months later, the verdict came via email to the mother of the slain 17-year-old: Denied.
She appealed her denial to the Crime Victims Reparations Committee, and sent along documentation that she hoped would reverse what she assumed was the reason for her denial: concerns about who had paid for her son’s funeral.
Under state law, that committee should have held a hearing within 120 days of her request. But Zalopany’s case wasn’t heard until six months later. (Read more here about the appeals committee that rarely meets.)
Soon after, she received a letter affirming Arp’s original denial.
The committee voted to “deny the claim for compensation because based upon the record before the committee, the victim could not be found to be completely free of culpability with regard to the act which produced the injury to the victim,” it read.
In plain English: The state had decided her teenage son had some fault in his own death.
Instead of assistance, she received a letter “tarnishing” Kalani’s name, Zalopany said.
“How the (expletive) does my son have any culpability in his own death? It’s the most asinine miscarriage of justice,” she said.
The letter didn’t give the reason behind that decision, but included an excerpt from state law requiring the hearing officer to consider “circumstances determined to be relevant, including … provocation, consent, or any other behavior of the victim which directly or indirectly contributed to his or her injury.”
Zalopany wrote back to program staff, saying she didn’t know of any evidence of culpability and calling the determination “really callous and inaccurate.”
In an email to the Flatwater Free Press, Arp said Kalani was “on parole, with an ankle monitor, for possession of marijuana.” Court records show he was caught with 1 ounce of marijuana or less in his backpack in 2018 and received three years probation – not parole, which is granted to inmates deemed ready to return to society.
“The claim finding was based on the law enforcement investigation and associated reports which found the homicide to have occurred as part of a drug-related robbery wherein the victim was killed while being robbed of money he made selling marijuana,” Arp wrote.
Zalopany said the stolen money was from her son’s part-time job. She shared a 2020 tax document showing he made $1,500. But, even if that cash was from dealing marijuana, did that mean her teenage son somehow invited his own violent death?
“They’re saying if you do an illegal activity, you deserve to die,” his mom said.
Rigid rules, complex cases
Zalopany’s case is one of many where a crime victim or survivor smashes headlong into CVR’s rules, which service providers say are far too rigid – or rigidly interpreted – for a program meant to serve Nebraskans in complex and often tragic circumstances.
The program requires that most crimes be reported to law enforcement in three days, though there are exceptions for sexual assault, sex trafficking and abuse.
Victims, often traumatized, don’t report crimes immediately, said Melanie Kirk, legal director at the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence.
“I think that CVR is an incredibly important program and that, unfortunately, the requirements – they’re difficult,” she said.
Those requirements can overwhelm crime victims who are in already-stressful situations, said Sawyer, the central Nebraska advocate who helps victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
“It’s just not worth our time,” she said. “We use local resources instead.”
The program mandates that a claim must be received within two years of the crime. The crime victim applying must have cooperated with the criminal justice system during the investigation and prosecution.
And it says applications can be denied if a victim violated criminal law and that violation “caused or contributed” to their injury or death. Between 2015 and January of this year, 33 applications were denied due to “contributory conduct,” according to program data. (Read more about where the money for CVR comes from here.)
Zalopany’s experience – and frustration – isn’t unique, according to a person who works in Nebraska’s criminal justice system, granted anonymity because of the nature of the employee’s work.
Requirements are often so strictly interpreted, particularly in homicide cases, that the program excludes people if they have been involved in the criminal justice system in any way, she said.
One such case: The man who was standing on his front lawn when hit and killed by a car that left the road. His family was denied funeral costs.
But many other cases, the employee said, are never even heard by Arp or the committee.
She remembered three recent cases of a parent being killed and leaving behind multiple children. None of these cases were referred to CVR, the employee said, because it was believed that the parents’ previous criminal record would result in denial.
Not all providers dislike the system. Misty Rowley, program director at Ainsworth’s Bright Horizons, which advocates for and shelters domestic violence victims, said she has helped roughly five people apply for CVR in the last few years with a roughly 80% success rate.
“I think the program is run really well within the parameters that they have,” Rowley said. “I do think that there could be some changes in the parameters, but that’s kind of the legislative side.”
A survey of 18 programs, done by DeBoer’s staff and the Women’s Fund of Omaha for an interim study last year, also turned up a few bright spots. (Jo Giles, executive director of the Women’s Fund of Omaha, serves on the Nebraska Journalism Trust’s board of directors.)
A third of survey takers mentioned, for example, how helpful the program’s current staff member is during the application process.
But that survey also identified many problems with how Nebraska helps, or doesn’t help, its crime victims.
The denial rate is too high, providers argued. The program’s requirements are too strict, they said. It sometimes treats Nebraskans who apply for the program like accomplices to the crime instead of victims of crime, they argued.
Nebraska’s denial rate affects the program’s funding, which could cause “further harm to victims in Nebraska,” the report found.
That’s because federal funding for the program is allocated via a formula: 75% of the state money spent on victim claims two years prior.
North and South Dakota are the only U.S. states that received less federal funding than Nebraska in 2022, federal data shows. In fact, Nebraska has been in the bottom three recipients each year since 2019.
“If the program continues to deny applicants, especially qualified applicants, then the amount of money that is unused each year increases … and the federal award in following years will decrease,” the report found.
Nebraska’s CVR program needs to be more transparent, more efficient and more flexible, the report said. State leaders should work at “lifting barriers that make it difficult for victims to access funds.”
The report notes that the program’s problems can’t be addressed by changing requirements alone – rather, it reads, it “demonstrates the need for a program run by professionals who understand the complex dynamics of victimization.”
And it recommends that the program be moved to the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office.
One piece of the report Arp agreed with: The program needs more staff.
The commission has requested funding for another staff member. Gov. Pillen included that funding in his budget proposal.
“Time has shown that only having one staff handicaps our ability to process claims at an acceptable pace,” the budget request reads, adding that Nebraska is “maybe the only state” operating its program with just one employee.
That one employee’s job was vacant for three months in 2021, according to the program, bringing CVR to a halt.
Arp recently responded to the report in an eight-page letter to DeBoer, pushing back against several findings, agreeing with a few and noting that the crime commission wasn’t consulted.
Among Arp’s beefs: He wrote that when CVR denies a claim because of “a lack of innocence,” there is “clear criminal activity.” He included recent examples, including a fight between gang members and drug deals that turned violent.
He told the Flatwater Free Press that his decision making is “always victim-focused.”
“As I review the staff recommendation, I do so from a stance that supports approval and only makes changes if clear grounds for denial are found,” he wrote.
If Nebraska’s program were ultimately able to offer more people support, Sawyer said, it would change the lives of the crime victims who desperately need it.
It was life-changing for Theresa Lawson, who successfully applied about five years ago, a year after she learned that her ex-husband had been sexually abusing her teenage daughter.
Bills were piling up from the art therapy that had significantly helped her daughter. The therapist wrote Lawson’s application, she said, and she quickly received the maximum amount for counseling: $2,000.
As a single mom of five, Lawson said that meant “everything.”
The program ended up meaning something very different to Kuuleilani Zalopany.
Among the report’s recommendations is one that may have granted Zalopany a similar success story, even if Arp found Kalani had somehow broken the law when he was killed:
“Legislative solutions could include a good cause form that allows applicants to explain their unique situation and why they should receive funds despite having violated a law during the incident,” it reads.
She still feels wounded by a system that purports to be there to help people like her. She thinks it dealt her “another blow” in the grieving process.
In the end, she paid for the funeral with money from a GoFundMe fund started by a friend – money meant to help Zalopany and her family move back to Hawaii.
Now that she’s back home, she has found hope in at least one place. The private Catholic school that her son Kalani attended as a child in Honolulu, a few years before he died in Omaha, has established a memorial scholarship in his name.
It was created by anonymous donors.
It is special to Zalopany. But it does not make her forget what happened in Nebraska.
“I sat here struggling and struggling, still trying to recover from when I lost my son, emotionally, mentally and financially,” she said. “And there is no restitution. There is no balance of the scales, like – it’s all tipped to one side …”