Elizabeth Cronin
Elizabeth Cronin (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

As a former assistant district attorney prosecuting domestic violence, child abuse, sex crimes and elder abuse cases, Elizabeth Cronin spent more than a decade bringing criminals to justice as an advocate for the “People of the State of New York.”

Now, Cronin advocates for the casualties of crime.

Cronin, 55, was tapped last summer by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to run the Office of Victim Services (OVS), an agency that evolved from a horrific incident some 40 years ago when a young man was murdered in a subway, leaving behind a cash-strapped widow and 15-month-old toddler. Cronin brought a wealth of experience to the $101,600-a-year position.

For the prior 13 years, Cronin served as director of the Office of Legal Affairs for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, supervising the work of the staff counsel and staff attorneys. Before that, she was a deputy bureau chief in the special prosecutions division of the Westchester County District Attorney’s office. Cronin also taught at Pace University, practiced as an associate with Rapaport, Manheim & Benedict, clerked for a Connecticut Superior Court judge and published articles on topics ranging from domestic violence to immigration law.

A graduate of Pace University School of Law, Cronin has a bachelor’s degree in politics from Fairfield University. She lives in New Castle with her husband, attorney Kevin Conklin of Mead, Hecht, Conklin & Gallagher in White Plains.

Q: What is the New York State Office of Victim Services?

A: The Office of Victims Services is a state agency created and authorized under Article 22 of the state’s Executive Law. Initially created as the Crime Victims Board in 1966, the agency is the second oldest state program of its kind in the country. OVS provides compensation to innocent victims of crime, funds direct services to crime victims across the state via a network of community-based programs, and advocates for the rights and benefits of innocent victims of crime. The agency was created to be a safety net, a place to assist crime victims who have no other means of support. OVS is a payer of last resort: all sources of assistance, such as medical insurance and worker’s compensation, must be exhausted before the agency can pay a victim or their family members for any out-of-pocket losses related to a crime.

Q: What exactly is an “innocent” victim of crime?

A: “Innocent” isn’t a legal, criminal court determination, made by a jury, rather it is a finding by OVS that the individual was a victim or injured through no fault of his or her own. Under Executive Law §631(5)(a), OVS must determine, when deciding the amount of an award, whether, “because of his conduct, the victim of such crime contributed to the infliction of his injury.” If that is found to be the case, the office “shall reduce the amount of the award or reject the claim altogether, in accordance with such determination.”

Q: What sorts of losses are compensable?

A: The agency provides financial relief to victims of crime and their families by paying unreimbursed crime-related expenses, including, but not limited to: medical and burial expenses, loss of earnings or support, counseling costs, crime scene clean-up expenses, the cost to repair or replace items of essential personal property (for example, a pair of eyeglasses that were broken during the course of the crime), reasonable court transportation expenses, assistance to crime victims acting as Good Samaritans, the cost of living at or obtaining assistance from a domestic violence shelter, and limited attorney fees.

Q: How does a victim go about getting help?

A: The process starts with a victim or claimant (someone filing on the victim’s behalf) filing an application with the agency. Once OVS has received the application and all necessary, supporting documentation, staff members can begin the investigative process to determine what, if any, benefits may be payable. To get assistance with filing for compensation, crime victims can contact OVS directly by calling our toll-free number at 800-247-8035 or visiting the agency’s website: www.ovs.ny.gov. Victims also can work directly with a victims’ assistance program in their community to file a claim. These programs also are listed on the OVS website.

Q: What can the courts do to assist victims?

A: Courts must balance the rights of a defendant with the rights of a victim, so that neither is sacrificed at the expense of the other. That can be a challenge, particularly when the focus of a criminal case is on the defendant. New York State laws designed to ensure a crime victim’s rights are outlined in the Fair Treatment Standards for Crime Victims, which is detailed in Executive Law Article 23. New York allows for the videotaping of child victims for grand jury; gives victims the opportunity to speak at sentencing; and allows for restitution to be awarded to a victim, and it is important that judges order restitution regardless of the perpetrator’s current ability to pay. New York also has established specialty courts to handle certain crimes that can pose unique challenges for victims, such as domestic violence and human trafficking. The courts must do all that they can to ensure that crime victims don’t feel as if the criminal justice system doesn’t work for them or that they are marginalized by the system.

Q: Does the agency ever appear in court on behalf of victims?

A: No, our staff’s role centers on assisting victims with the processing of their claims. OVS funds victims’ assistance programs throughout the state, and many of those organizations have staff who will accompany victims to court. The agency currently funds 186 programs to offer advocacy and direct support to victims.

Q: What are the pressing legal issues in the area of victim compensation?

A: OVS has identified the ordering of restitution in criminal cases as a continuing and pressing legal issue for crime victims. A criminal case is more than just a prosecution against an offender. Built into our laws is the ability for a sentence to include restitution, which is monetary compensation to be paid by an offender to the victim for their loss. Prosecutors and courts have a great deal of responsibility when it comes to identifying, requesting and ultimately ordering restitution. We strongly encourage prosecutors to make restitution a priority in criminal cases so that the courts will consider victims’ financial losses when holding defendants accountable for their crimes.

Q: Is there any training OVS offers to the legal community?

A: OVS offers training as it relates to victim compensation to anyone who requests it. The OVS Legal Unit also has developed a presentation titled “Crime Victim Compensation and the Issue of Restitution,” which has been accredited by the New York State Continuing Legal Education Board. Attorneys who take the training will receive 1.5 CLE credits for Professional Practice. It is our hope that the ability to receive this credit will encourage attorneys, particularly those in District Attorneys’ Offices, to attend. Providing this kind of training is crucial to bring added attention to the issue of restitution for victims of crime. We also offer training for hospitals, victim assistance professionals, and police departments on such topics as human trafficking, forensic rape exams and OVS procedures.

Q: What is the largest award you’ve ever made?

A: The majority of our benefits have a cap on the amount that we can reimburse. For example, the maximum amount an individual can receive for lost earnings or loss of support is up to $600 a week, up to a total maximum of $30,000; up to $6,000 for burial expenses (for crimes committed after Nov. 1, 1996); up to $2,500 for crime scene clean up; and up to $1,000 for attorney fees for representation to assist with filing compensation. However, New York is unique in that there is no cap on the medical reimbursement or direct payment that can be made on behalf of a claimant for causally related medical expenses. For example, if an individual suffers a traumatic brain injury as a result of a crime, and he or she is deemed eligible for assistance, the agency will pay medical bills indefinitely, and those claims can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in payment. In 2013 alone, OVS provided more than $22 million to crime victims and/or their families.

Q: Where does the funding come from?

A: OVS is funded entirely from fines, penalties, mandatory surcharges and crime victims’ assistance fees paid by offenders convicted in state or federal court. No taxpayer dollars are used to fund the compensation provided by the agency, the grants it provides to victims’ assistance programs or its day-to-day operations.

Q: What is the biggest obstacle for crime victims seeking compensation?

A: Awareness. Every day, we work hard to ensure that we are reaching as wide an audience as possible so that everyone—from the general public to our partners in law enforcement—is aware of the services we offer and the help we can, and cannot, provide. It is my mission to do whatever I can to get the word out across the state about OVS.

Q: How have things changed over time for crime victims in New York?

A: Today, potential crime victims include those we never could have imagined more than 40 years ago: the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 and the continuing threats of terrorism acts within our state’s borders, for example, would have been beyond comprehension in the late 1960s. Criminals also have become more sophisticated, using technology for computer-aided identity theft and other financial crimes. There also is more public recognition and awareness of the impact crime has on victims and that victims’ rights must be considered in the process. There also have been changes in public perception of certain crimes, such as domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault, which have led to more victims coming forward to seek justice. The criminal justice system has made great strides to improve the manner in which those cases are handled, through education, awareness and advocacy on those victims’ behalf.

Q: What are your major policy/procedure goals for this year?

A: I am intent on spreading the word about our agency and the incredible work that we do so that every eligible crime victim in New York has a chance to apply to us for benefits. Partnering with other agencies and organizations to improve services to victims also is paramount. I have been meeting with state, county, and city, judicial and non-profit agencies to develop new and innovative programs supporting victim services. We are also working to identify populations of victims who are underserved, trying to understand why they are not applying for services and working to remove those barriers so everyone gets the assistance to which they are entitled.

Q: As a new director, what has most surprised you since you took over in September?

A: I was pleasantly surprised by the agency’s scope and how much OVS can do to support crime victims and their families. I also was impressed with the important role that the victims’ assistance programs play in their communities and look forward to partnering with them, and other agencies and organizations, to spread the word about OVS and the importance of crime victims’ rights.

Q: How was the transition from working in the federal courts to running a state agency?

A: Both jobs are exciting and challenging, but in very different ways. There is always a learning curve when you take a new job, but being a manager for many years and understanding victim issues from my time as a prosecutor has certainly made the transition a lot smoother. Of course, having a great staff has made things a lot easier, too. During my tenure at the court, I worked hard to collaborate with the other court units and volunteered for councils and work groups at the Administrative Office in Washington, D.C. I am making similar efforts in my new position to combine talents with other agencies. In the court, our focus was, of course, on appellate legal issues and legal writing. At OVS, we address legal questions on a variety of issues but our main focus is providing compensation to victims and their family members and funding victims’ assistance programs throughout the state. I also enjoy the opportunity to work on legislative initiatives.

Q: April 6-12 is National Crime Victims week and, this year, the 30th anniversary of the federal Victim of Crimes Act of 1984 (VOCA). What is the significance of this annual event?

A: This is a national, annual observance to promote crime victims’ rights and honor crime victims and those who advocate on their behalf. Prior to VOCA, there were few services available to crime victims and the criminal justice system often failed to recognize victims’ needs. In addition, victim compensation programs were not consistently available and were not funded with federal dollars.

Today, the federal Crime Victims Fund provides consistent financial support to compensation programs, including OVS. The crime victims’ field has recognized and addressed the needs of a broader range of victims, and services now embrace more disciplines. While progress has been encouraging and significant, there is still much work to be done. The field of crime victim services continues to evolve and there are emergent crimes and victim populations that must be considered. There is a real need to expand the base of knowledge concerning victims’ services including statistical data, multi-disciplinary cooperation, evidence-based practices and program evaluation. So, we can’t rest on our laurels just yet.

Q: What does OVS do to recognize this event?

A: I’m excited about an inaugural event we are sponsoring with Binghamton University on Monday, April 7. This information fair and panel discussion will focus on student safety and make students aware of the resources available if they are victimized. I also am looking forward to attending and speaking at several other events, including the New York State Sheriffs’ Association Institute’s annual VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday) Conference; a Candlelight Vigil for Crime Victims in Saratoga County sponsored by the District Attorney’s Office; an event sponsored annually by the Crime Victims’ Assistance Center in Binghamton; and the annual brick dedication ceremony at the state’s Crime Victims’ Memorial, which is located on the Empire State Plaza in Albany. That ceremony is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Friday, April 11. In addition, for the seventh consecutive year, OVS will partner with the American Red Cross in Albany to sponsor a blood drive on Wednesday, April 9, and we will sponsor a drive in Brooklyn on Friday, April 11. And of course, I will be donating blood!