For Families of Fallen Officers, Grief Can Be Paired With Financial Hardship

Delayed or lacking benefits add financial struggle after unexpected loss.

July 19, 2016, 4:53 PM
PHOTO: An American flag over a casket at a funeral.
An American flag over a casket at a funeral.
Getty Images/Blend Images RM

— -- Cheryl Schultz' husband Kevin had been dead for less than two weeks when she had knee surgery.

The timing wasn’t an unfortunate coincidence, Schultz said it was intentionally scheduled so that she could have the surgery before she lost insurance coverage.

Several days earlier, the couple and their children were spending a Saturday enjoying a picnic with members of their church near Pilar, New Mexico.

Nearby, a boy from the group that was fishing on the Rio Grande, dropped his tackle box and fell into the river while trying to retrieve it.

“It really looks like it’s calm water,” Schultz said. “But underneath there’s undertow.”

Kevin, an officer with the Pojoaque, New Mexico Police Department, sprang into action, entering the river and ultimately giving his own life to save the boy.

Like the death of fallen police officers across the country, Kevin’s passing was emotionally devastating for the family. But it also raised a series of financial struggles that many families do not see foresee.

A federal program is available to the families of all fallen law enforcement officers and first responders who die in the line of duty -- the Public Service Officers’ Benefits program (PSOB), administered by the U.S. Department of Justice -- that provides monetary compensation and educational benefits.

Though it can provide much-needed relief, the process of applying and waiting for benefits can take months or even years and many police departments don't have their own death benefits or pensions to provide for the families. In the meantime, the families can be left without any funds to cover living expenses.

“The immediate cash issues were horrible,” said Cheryl, who is now the Western Region Trustee on the board of National Concerns of Police Survivors, or C.O.P.S., a group who assists and advocates on behalf of surviving families.

“I couldn’t even cash his last check that they gave me,” she said, noting complications with their joint account. She also quickly lost her health insurance, which was tied to Kevin’s job.

Cheryl, who worked in a dentist’s office, said that without her husband’s income, she and her children were forced to move in with her pastor and his wife. She received “a small amount” from social security and relied on donations from her former church in Kansas.

Cheryl began the process of applying for relief from PSOB, but she struggled to make ends meet for nine months while she waited for her case to be approved.

The financial difficulty that Cheryl faced almost immediately after her husband’s unexpected death are not unique for the families of fallen law enforcement officers, according to Sara Slone, spokesperson for C.O.P.S.

“The officers are the breadwinners,” she told ABC News. “Just because they work such odd schedules –- a lot of times they work 12 hours a day -– a lot of times it’s difficult for the spouse to even have a normal nine-to-five job.”

According to Slone, the problems can range from paying for housing to everyday expense like food and school supplies or food.

The PSOB, she said, is “not an immediate benefit,” and families “have to go through the process and sometimes it can take years,” before they receive a payout.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that “the goal is for all applications to be addressed within one year” but that “each case presents unique circumstances to document and approve.”

Data available on the program's website, says that in the fiscal year ending on September 30, 2014, the total number of death claims for "public safety officers" -- which include law enforcement officers, firefighters or chaplains working for a public agency -- was 319. During that same time frame, 88 percent of death claims were approved -- though some of these approvals may have been filed in an earlier fiscal year.

For eligible deaths of "public safety officers" that occur on or after October 1, 2015, the PSOB benefit is $339,881.00, according to the website.

So far in 2016, 63 officers have died, a two percent increase on the number of deaths that had occurred at the same time in 2015, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. The state of Texas has lost the highest number of officers -- 11 -- while Louisiana, which has lost the second highest amount, has lost seven.

The experience that families of fallen officers have can vary from department to department, however.

“Our officers do not face the hardship that other survivors do,” said Ray Hunt, President of the Houston, Texas Police Officers Union.

According to Hunt, the families of fallen officers in Houston are paid the officer’s salary by the pension system for the rest of their lives, which also makes sure they continue receiving health insurance at employee rates. Meanwhile, he says, a local charity pays off any outstanding debt that the officer may owe at the time of their death, and the state of Texas allows their children to attend state colleges for free.

“We have heard that this is not the case in other places,” Hunt said. “It’s tragic if they’re not covered by a pension and if they’re not protected the way we protect our police officers in Houston and in the state of Texas”

“I can only imagine what those folks who don’t have the support we have in Houston are facing,” he said.

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