Parents, family members, and survivors from some of the worst mass atrocities on American soil are banding together to make sure that charitable funds dedicated to the victims of these tragedies go to the intended recipients.
Sixty-four parents and family members directly affected by the mass shootings at Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., Virginia Tech, the Oak Creek Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, and Northern Illinois University, as well as the World Trade Center attack, are proposing that the federal government establish a National Compassion Fund, which would guarantee that all donations collected after a tragedy are distributed directly to the victims or their survivors.
“The American public is incredibly giving when tragedy strikes,” said Caryn Kaufman, a spokeswoman for the families, in a statement. “Going back to Oklahoma City, we’ve seen families who have had to endure not only horrific loss but also the unimaginable task of wrestling with byzantine nonprofit bureaucracies to access financial relief intended for them. We cannot let this happen yet again.”
This week The New York Times reported that 40 organizations raised roughly $15 million to benefit families of the victims of December’s Newtown, Conn., massacre and those traumatized by the shootings there. But those affected by the tragedies and town residents say they are concerned that some of the funds will be used by organizations like the United Way and the Red Cross in subsequent relief efforts, with the daughter of the Sandy Hook Elementary School principal telling the paper that the “United Way has been kind of stringing us along while they send the money to where they want it to go.”
The situation is not unique to Sandy Hook. After the shooting rampage in Aurora, family members of the victims said they received almost none of the $5 million sent their way, and similar complaints were registered after the Virginia Tech and Columbine tragedies.
And often families dealing with a thicket of grief find themselves unexpectedly dealing with a thicket of bureaucracy as they try to wrest away funds that were intended for them—but end up going toward well-meaning, but auxiliary institutions.
“It was horrible,” said Mike Pohle, whose son, Mike Pohle, Jr., was shot and killed at Virginia Tech. The university, he said, received more than $100 million in donations after the shooting, and family members like himself had to fight in order to receive funds to attend counseling sessions—sessions, he said, that were still needed more than five years later.
“You can imagine where we were at, and they were pushing it basically down our throats. It wasn’t until a year later that we saw what was going on.”
To be established, the fund would require an act of Congress or an executive order. It would be part of an emergency response and would become the destination for monetary donations intended for victims. Monies earmarked for victims sent to other nonprofits would be funneled to the fund; corporations and individuals would also be permitted to give directly. The fund would then disburse the money based on a formula, providing regular payments until the endowment is exhausted.
“In theory, it is a good idea that, in times of national catastrophes, that there be a fund where money submitted privately by the American people might be distributed in effective ways to the victims and their families,” said Kenneth Feinberg, a lawyer called upon after the 9/11 attacks, Virginia Tech and other tragedies to help with disburse charity dollars. But, he cautioned, “I don’t know how realistic it is. Bad things happen to good people every day in this country... I wonder if there is the political will to create such a fund in the absence of such a tragedy.”
Advocates for survivors say that they depend on donations for counseling and funeral services, and in some cases to assist those too overcome with grief to return to work. The injured may need help with medical bills, and family members of the deceased often have figure out a way to survive after the loss of income.
Family members of those killed in mass tragedies say today’s charity infrastructure is not enough to meet their needs. Scott Larimer, whose son was killed in the Aurora shooting, said that even though millions of dollars was sent to charities to aid those affected, he would have had to travel from his home in Illinois to Colorado if he wanted to receive counseling.
“It was not exactly pleasant,” he said. “They collected $5 million and they were flat-out not going to give it to the victims. They were going to give it to organizations that couldn’t provide services to the victims’ families.”
“We had enough to deal with,” he continued. “And then we had to go hat-in-hand to these charities to get the money sent to us. You are struggling with a death, and we had enough to deal with.”