Miriam Headley Reyes sits among pillows bearing Frida Kahlo's face and describes seven years of hell.

What started as a deep romance in 2011 degenerated into what Reyes describes as abuse by her husband. The pushing, punching and constant cheating and lying continued as a tsunami of tragedy engulfed her and her children.

Her husband's teenage son from a previous relationship molested the 5-year-old daughter they share. And the domestic violence never stopped, Reyes says.

Pursuing criminal cases against her stepson and soon-to-be-ex-husband have drained Reyes emotionally and financially. The estranged husband has agreed to help pay for her car, utilities and mortgage.

Miriam Headley Reyes, among her Frida Kahlo pillows at her home in Las Cruces, is waiting to hear whether she’ll get reparations.
Miriam Headley Reyes, among her Frida Kahlo pillows at her home in Las Cruces, is waiting to hear whether she’ll get reparations. | Katherine Lewin

But there's plenty left in the wake of the devastation: Reyes needs assistance with lost wages, gas and, most importantly, counseling for herself and for her daughter.

She's likely to get that help, now that an advocate has connected her with the New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission, whose primary mission is to assist those in precisely the kind of predicament in which Reyes finds herself.

"When everything with [my daughter] happened, I started working with [the commission]," she says in Spanish through tears inside her bright yellow, red-roofed home in Las Cruces. "When we started going to court, I noticed that I was missing days of work and I had more bills. I registered, I filled out documents, they talked to me, they asked me for information … about the case."

The little-known commission, headquartered in Albuquerque, is a vital cog in the state's criminal justice system. In recent years, staff and governor-appointed board members have expanded who's eligible and made it easier to compensate the applicants, most of whom cannot cover funeral costs, rent, medical bills and certain other expenses.

Crime rates have continued to rise in New Mexico during the past half-decade. So has the number of applications to the commission—topping 4,400 in the fiscal year that ended June 30. That's more than triple the applications just five years ago.

Yet, even though more people are asking for help, the amount paid out by the commission each year since 2014 has remained somewhat static, hovering around $2 million.

The rate at which people have been approved for help, on the other hand, has plummeted—down nearly 20 percentage points overall since 2014, a close analysis of data provided to SFR shows.

In 2014, 85% of applications were approved. In 2019, just 66% were approved.

A longtime victim advocate was surprised to learn of the downward approval trend and calls it "very concerning."

Why the application approval rate has decreased is unclear.

The commission's director and board chair insist that despite their own figures, the agency is helping a larger share of victims than ever. They disagree with commission data, saying they do not have a declining approval rate.

"We are a very victim-centered commission," Marron Lee, chair of the board, tells SFR in a lengthy interview last week. "When I came on [in 2013], this was a commission of 'no.' Now, we are a commission of 'yes.'"

The commission even posted an annual report to its website while this story was being reported that was full of misdirection and numbers that do not match the data provided to SFR.

The report, which was posted, deleted and changed several times in the week before this story was published, says the commission actually granted a higher percentage of applications in 2019 than in years past, muddying the picture for the public.

Also murky: whether the decline in approvals has fallen disproportionately on people of any particular race or ethnicity.

Every state has a pool of money to compensate crime victims. In some states, black people have been denied reparations at higher rates than whites in certain types of cases—another example of the justice system's burdens falling more heavily on non-white communities.

While the New Mexico commission collects the data, it had never tracked the race or ethnicity of applicants until SFR filed a request under the Inspection of Public Records Act for breakdowns showing who was approved and denied.

Lee and commission director Frank Zubia, who was hired by the board in 2014, say it never occurred to them to analyze approvals by race or ethnicity, and they have no plans to do so going forward.

The commission's application includes a box for people to list their race or ethnicity, but Lee and Zubia say the commission doesn't consider it.

"It's never even a factor. It just isn't," Lee says.

Reyes, who immigrated to Las Cruces from Mexico around 2007, says the commission's investigators have been helpful and reassuring since she applied for funds a few weeks ago. She is waiting to hear whether she's been approved.

"I'm asking for the fair thing," Reyes says. "I don't know how much I can qualify for. I haven't talked to them about that, but I'm seeing if they will reimburse me for the days I lost from work [and] gasoline."

‘They need to be aware it exists’

Crime stories have dominated newspaper headlines and evening newscasts for years in New Mexico. The flashing police lights and photographs of evidence markers behind yellow tape illustrate a grim reality here: As the national violent crime rate decreased again in 2018, the most recent year for which complete figures are available, New Mexico's rate ticked up, leaving the state state second in the nation with 857 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, according to the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report.

The national rate: 369.

Every violent crime has a victim, and how they're impacted days, weeks and months afterwards reveals the less-told story.

Expenses can pile up quickly, whether it's to mend broken bones after an aggravated battery, bury a family member or remove a domestic violence survivor from an abusive home quickly. In New Mexico, one of the nation's poorest states, many people can't afford the costs of being victimized.

That's why the reparation commission exists.

Despite efforts to get the word out in recent years, many victims who would qualify for reparations never apply, according to a 2018 analysis of the commission by a team from the Council of State Governments.

The commission seems to operate largely out of view.

When SFR attended its monthly meeting in September, it was clear commissioners and staff hadn't encountered a journalist in some time. Lee, who was appointed chair in 2013 by then-Gov. Susana Martinez, says she spent her first few years on the commission telling ill-informed legislators about it.

And then there are the victims themselves.

"Well, number one, they need to be aware that [the commission] exists," says Linda Atkinson, executive director of the New Mexico Victims' Rights Project, an advocacy group. "Many don't."

Other advocates who work for government and nonprofit agencies say they are often the first to inform people about their right to compensation.

Reyes' first brush with the commission came in April, but the confusion and trauma from the ordeals with her daughter and abusive husband left her unable to focus on the paperwork requirements to apply for reparations.

It wasn't until Melissa Lesh, an advocate with New Mexico Victims' Rights, came into the picture that Reyes could put everything together to complete her application.

On paper, she should be easily approved.

Multiple missions

The crimes committed against Reyes and her daughter, like more than a dozen other crimes, qualify under state law for compensation, and she's asking for money to help defray costs in approved categories. Reyes wouldn't be eligible for reparations if the commission determined she had contributed to the crimes, she had failed to obtain a police report or report the crime within two years, or her claim fell within another of the listed statutory exemptions—but none of those appear to apply to her case.

Further, Reyes says she doesn't have insurance that would cover counseling for her and her daughter; if she did, that would count as a "collateral source" of payment that would disqualify her from receiving reparations.

Lee and Zubia say all applications are assigned to a commission investigator, who processes the claim and begins a cursory review—90% of which relies on a police report—to determine whether it fits within state law. Complete applications, they say, can be approved "in a matter of hours," and the average turnaround time from claim to payout is 72 days—significantly shorter than it was several years ago.

Atkinson, of New Mexico Victims' Rights, says she's seen much longer wait times. She counts the sometimes dragged-out process among her few complaints about the commission's work.

Another, which Lesh shares: There aren't enough Spanish speakers at the commission to meet New Mexico's demand.

Lee disputes that assessment, saying that four of the commission's 11 staffers who process claims, including Zubia, speak Spanish.

Atkinson and Lesh describe several improvements to the reparations process, all of which Lee and Zubia confirm. Several crimes have been added to the list of those eligible for reparations in recent years; the commission pushed for a change in state law that allows for "good cause" extensions to the requirement that claims be filed within two years of the crime; and it's no longer mandatory that victims initially report crimes to police.

Those changes, along with increased efforts to educate New Mexicans about the commission's work and mission, have created a more victim-friendly environment for reparations, the board member and director say.

They concede some challenges, though, including six vacancies on a staff of 31 that handles far more than applications for victim compensation.

The commission also acts as a pass-through, administering millions of dollars in federal grants through the STOP Violence Against Women Act and the Victims Of Crime Act to more than 170 government and nonprofit agencies such as rape crisis centers and domestic violence centers throughout the state.

In fiscal 2019, the commission funneled more than $14 million to those groups—up from about $9 million the year before and about $4 million in fiscal 2014, according to the commission's figures.

Lee says the commission could function more efficiently with a full staff, but only if it "didn't take on any more responsibilities."

The Council of State Governments' Justice Center analyzed several pieces of the New Mexico justice system, including the reparation commission for a report published in December.

"We actually found that the staff at CVRC had their head in the right place," says Celine Villongco, a policy analyst with the council. "They were trying to get as many claims as they could within the limitations that they were being faced with approved."

But the commission did not provide the council with detailed, "case-level data," Villongco says, making a deep analysis more difficult.

She complimented the commission for "strategic thought that goes into making sure that they're able to approve as many claims as possible."

The council was "unfortunately not able to dig deeper into the system and provide additional analysis" because of the limited data it was provided, Villongco says.

Analysts were not aware of the decrease in approved applications since 2014, she says, and did not discuss it with the commission. "But that's definitely something that's interesting," Villongco adds.

Data switcheroo

Data collection and analysis have not been priorities for the commission—particularly in the areas of application approval rates and the demographics of who is receiving reparations versus who isn't.

According to Zubia, his staff relied on a case management system that couldn't perform much beyond the most basic tracking functions prior to fiscal 2019.

What data extracted from the old system does show is a downward trend for approved reparation applications from fiscal 2014—when 85% of the 1,378 requests were granted—to fiscal 2018, when 70% of 3,707 applications were approved.

The Council of State Governments found New Mexico had the highest violent crime rate in its nine-state region in 2016, but the fourth lowest expenditure rate per 100,000 residents for crime victim reparations.

Lee and Zubia say the numbers they provided to SFR are accurate, even while disputing that the approval rate has declined. At the same time, they say any potential decrease in approval rates could be the result of poorly educated victim advocates submitting ineligible applications and fewer people being approved for medical expenses since the Affordable Care Act passed into law.

The New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission has seen an increase in applications for reparations over the years but the rate at which applications are approved has decreased.
The New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission has seen an increase in applications for reparations over the years but the rate at which applications are approved has decreased. | Katherine Lewin

The commission could not provide raw data for fiscal years 2014 through 2018—just aggregate numbers Lee and Zubia stand by.

The picture gets at once clearer and messier for 2019.

SFR submitted a public records request in late July for six years' worth of information from the commission. In September, Zubia provided aggregated numbers that showed a 74% overall approval rate for 2019.

Last week, just before the stated deadline for this story and after SFR interviewed Lee and Zubia, they provided a spreadsheet containing raw data in numerous categories for fiscal year 2019. SFR analyzed the nearly 4,700 rows, and found that the approval rate was just 66%.

Around the same time, the commission posted to its website an interactive series of graphics titled "2019 Annual Report" that contained a fever chart showing that the commission's approval rate spiked in 2019 to nearly 82%.

Reached late Thursday for an explanation of the discrepancies, Zubia says the initial numbers he provided in September were "wrong." He then says the information posted to the commission's website last week was a "work in progress" and "not our annual report."

He then promises to append a caveat to the report "just for you."

After agreeing that the raw data he provided on Oct. 22 constitutes the best available information, Zubia disputes basic calculations SFR performed with the data—including for the application approval rate—and accuses the news organizations of "twisting the numbers" and "spinning" the commission's own figures.

By Friday, the report posted on the website had been changed again. But rather than adding a note about "work in progress," the commission had changed the 2019 approval rate to 91%.

By press time, the report had been removed completely from the commission's website once again.

Lee and Zubia said repeatedly that the top reasons for denying applications in 2019 were: people the commission deemed ineligible by law to ask for reparations, and the commission's own inability to find victims after they had applied. They say those applications should be removed when calculating approval and denial rates, even though they say those categories are included in the figures they provided for 2014 through 2018.

‘We didn’t think it was important’

The commission's lack of curiosity about its trends over time does not stop at approvals and denials.

Commission data shows a relatively consistent approval rate across demographics for the 2019 fiscal year, with Native Americans, whites, African Americans and Hispanics being approved for compensation at rates between 63% and 70%.

For previous years, however, the commission's case management system was incapable of separating approvals and denials by race and ethnicity, Zubia says. At the request of SFR, he sent the old system off for an outside review, but he has no confidence in the numbers that came back.

That makes examining demographic trends in the commission's work over time impossible.

An investigation by The Frontier, a nonprofit, online news organization, found that black homicide victims were denied reparations at higher rates than white homicide victims in Oklahoma—often due to a finding that the victims contributed to their own deaths.

Similarly, an investigation by The Marshall Project, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and the USA Today Network turned up racial disparities in victim compensation in seven states that bar people with criminal records from receiving reparations. (New Mexico has no such prohibition.)

Lee says she can't think of a reason to examine approval and denial rates by demographic information.

"We didn't think it was important," she says. "I don't know why we would be tracking that when we don't take it into account when we make our decisions and we've never been accused of anything like that. It would be anathema to us."

Cover-3-Reporations-GraphsThe New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission funnels through millions of federal grant money every year to other state and nonprofit entities.

In fiscal year 2019, the commission sent more than $14 million in funds to those groups—up from about $9 million the year before and about $4 million in fiscal 2014, according to the commission's figures. Here are some of the local places the money goes:

  • Esperanza Shelter
  • Solace Crisis Treatment Center
  • Santa Fe Recovery Center
  • Santa Fe Mountain Center
  • Assurance Homes
  • The Life Link
  • Christus St. Vincent SANE Program
  • New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence
  • New Mexico Office of the Attorney General, Administrative Office of the Courts and the First Judicial District Attorneys Office
  • Resolve
  • Crisis Center of Northern New Mexico

‘Restore ourselves’

Trends and patterns don't matter to Miriam Reyes.

She needs help paying crucial expenses to get herself and her children through tenuous times.

Reyes pets her small white and brown Chihuahua, whose name also is Frida, on her lap. Her home sits on a hill in the middle of Las Cruces. Inside are artistic odes to Kahlo and her on-and-off-again husband, Diego Rivera.

Reyes talks about her own on-and-off-again husband and the pain he brought her.

Their relationship moved quickly—her husband showed up at her house one day with a moving truck and insisted she, along with her two older children, move in and that she marry him. She accepted—the physical abuse began shortly after they were married in 2012.

Nothing was the same for her from there. The abuse and, later, other horrors continued.

As their divorce moves forward, Reyes needs money to keep her life intact—and to help her daughter heal with the assistance of a counselor.

She has asked the commission to chip in.

"Right now I am in the process of starting working with them," Reyes says. "Right now I am still in the hurricane. I am just going through the most difficult stage. Now where their program comes in, it is the restoration. Now we will see how we are going to restore ourselves as victims."