On Your Side Investigation: Loophole jeopardizes funding for brain injury survivors

On Your Side Investigation: Loophole jeopardizes funding for brain injury survivors
Source: WBRC video

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The Alabama legislature is considering a bill that could drastically change the outlook for people who suffer traumatic brain injuries.

A non-profit organization, Alabama Head Injury Foundation, helps more than 3,000 people recover from TBI's every year. However, the group's major source of funding -- court fees from people who commit crimes -- is running out fast.

"We have had 'panic button' years," said AHiF Program Director Amy Lamb-Eng. "There have been times when services to clients have been cut and there were years that positions had to be eliminated."

The foundation relies heavily on a trust-fund established by the state of Alabama in 1994. The trust fund collects a $100 fee from people found guilty of driving under the influence.  At its peak in 1999, the trust fund distributed $1.87 million to AHiF. That money allows the non-profit to employ Resource Coordinators who work with TBI survivors across the state, helping with anything from Medicaid paperwork to securing discount medical equipment. AHiF also offer support group meetings and respite camps for survivors and caregivers.

However, the trust-fund's coffers have decreased 9 to 10 percent every year since 2010. In 2017, AHiF received $745,000 from the trust, amounting to a more than 60 percent cut of its operating budget in less than 20 years, despite more cases of head injuries being reported each year. The drastic difference in funding can be traced directly to the rise in popularity of pre-trial diversion programs.

"It was just unintended consequences," said Alabama State Senator Cam Ward. "The rise of these diversion programs has been beneficial to our entire criminal justice system in reducing recidivism and addiction but by the same token, you're hurting the foundation that helps many of the victims of these crimes."

Ward is sponsoring a bill this legislative session that would close the loophole, requiring pre-trial diversion participants pay the same court fee required of people adjudicated guilty of a DUI.

"No one is immune to it.  It can happen to everyone," says Lamb-Eng. "We see a lot of TBIs occurring with falls, from small children all the way up to the elderly, car accidents, blunt force trauma and we're seeing a rise unfortunately with domestic violence and traumatic brain injury."

The Davidson family in Trussville knows better than most just how quickly life can change with a TBI. At the age of 18, Katie Davidson was just weeks away from moving into her college dorm room, when she fell from a golf cart and sustained head injuries that required she learn to walk and talk again.

"Your life is on one course and then two hours later, you're in a whole different world," recalls Katie's mother Suzanne. "Most people don't have any clue as to where to start and that's where the Head Injury Foundation comes in."

Now nearly seven years after her injury, Katie regularly attends support group meetings hosted by AHiF, an activity her family calls vital to her quality of life.

"She gets to be around people, gets to know people, and doesn't have to explain herself. That's what's important," says Davidson. "There is not another way, that we have discovered, to be able to get to know people dealing with the same thing."

On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill closing the loophole on court fees for diversion programs. The full Senate could vote on the bill as early as next Tuesday. Already approved by the Alabama House of Representatives, the bill would head to the Governor's desk if passed by the Senate.

To learn more about the Alabama Head Injury Foundation, visit www.ahif.org.

For more information, visit mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

WBRC Investigator Bree Sison contributed to this report. She also serves as a board member for the Alabama Head Injury Foundation..

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