The Sandy Hook Support Fund imbroglio serves as a lesson no town should ever have to learn: how to handle the millions of dollars that flow in from kindhearted people after a mass tragedy.
Well-meaning local leaders are at odds with grieving families of the victims of the Dec. 14 Newtown shooting over the disbursement of millions of dollars in donations to the fund, by far the largest set up after the shooting.
Boston handled its fund faster and better. It disbursed the outpouring of donations following the April 15 marathon bombing quickly and only to victims and their families — $60 million in 60 days. Those books are now closed.
But not in Newtown. Seven months after a madman raged through Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 26, the checks sent to the fund set up by United Way of Western Connecticut the day of the shooting have yet to be distributed.
Of the nearly $11.5 million in donations to the fund, $7.7 million will go, next month, to the families of the women and children killed at the school, the children who survived the massacre in two classrooms and two injured teachers.
The rest of the money, and future contributions, will be used for yet-to-be-defined "programs and services" for the whole community, according to the foundation administering the fund. Those could be mental health problems that show up years later, for example, or a memorial.
And therein lies the controversy.
Though the foundation and its distinguished committee of volunteers making these decisions have only the best interests of Newtown at heart, this vague, open-ended mission is a formula for continued pain rather than healing.
There is no finality in this for those most devastated by Adam Lanza's insane rampage through the school. The book will never be closed for the victims' families as long as the foundation continues to accept money in memory of that terrible day and wrestle with how to spend it.
How It Happened
It is easy to see, with the clarity of hindsight, how this mistake got made by the good-hearted local leaders who took on this difficult task.
Connecticut was reeling from an unimaginable shooting and had no protocol for handling the overwhelmingly generous response. It seemed reasonable at the time for the local United Way to get involved and for local leaders to determine how donations going to the largest of funds would be distributed. A dispassionate outside expert would have acted more quickly and directly.
Community-oriented agencies like United Way prefer "unrestricted gifts" that can be used for the greater good over the long haul. Yet the Newtown families argue that contributors were thinking of the immediate needs of the victims when they wrote their checks, not of a memorial or community center.
(Many smaller funds were set up for specific purposes such as scholarships, first responders at the scene, in the names of certain victims and so on. They're under the watch of the state attorney general.)
To be fair, the United Way says it was clear from the beginning that the money would be used for victims' families and for the community. But it took a month for a group to be put together to decide the particulars — a decision that is still not entirely resolved — and the amount meant for the families has fluctuated. That is a recipe for trouble at a time of emotional vulnerability.
Boston chose a different path: Its One Fund organizers decided early on to give all donations to victims. An experienced, independent administrator was quickly put in charge. (The administrator, Ken Feinberg, also advised on the victims' family portion of the Sandy Hook fund.) The money was distributed in two months.
There will never be "closure" on the Sandy Hook shooting. The effects will be felt in Newtown for years to come. But there could be an end to the turmoil over the donations. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's suggestion — bring in a third party to settle the remainder of the fund, possibly with the victims' families — could do that.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun