• December 19, 2014

More Than a Dozen Charities Created to Aid Conn. Shooting Victims

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ERIC THAYER/REUTERS/Newscom

People at the Blue Colony diner in Newtown, Conn., observe a moment of silence for victims of the December 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school.

A week after a gunman killed 27 people in Newtown, Conn., established and upstart charities are raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for victims and their families—an outpouring that is being closely watched by state officials worried about scams.

Meanwhile, established charities and grant makers have rushed to coordinate counseling services and burial donations since the tragedy that left 28 people dead, including the 20-year-old gunman. Foundations and state officials are beginning to talk about creating a long-term fund that might help families to deal with their grief or honor the dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Similar funds were created after mass killings at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater and at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

More than a dozen new charities have sprung up since the Connecticut mass shooting. Some of the funds are creating scholarships in honor of a certain victim. One, My Sandy Hook Family Fund, established by two Newtown parents, has managed to collect nearly $380,000 through the online charity site Everribbon.com.

“And that doesn’t include the $35,000 in checks I’m holding in my hand,” said Debora Accomando, the Sandy Hook mother who established the fund with her husband.

The Accomandos have told reporters that they set up the fund after hearing that one family had drained their savings to pay for their child’s burial. The site says the fund intends to use the donations to pay for “immediate needs, including funeral services, as well as ongoing living expenses such as food, mortgage payments, day care, insurance, and fuel until they are back on solid ground.”

Offering Guidance

William Rubenstein, Connecticut’s commissioner of consumer protection, said he contacted the Accomandos and other new fundraisers to advise them of state laws and rules concerning charitable donations. He said his office has not found any scams, but one person voluntarily decided to stop raising money when she learned what would be required to set up a tax-free charity.

“Some are likely to be scams; many are likely to be well-meaning,” Mr. Rubenstein said. “What we’re trying to do is separate which ones are not legit [and] which ones are well-meaning but need guidance on how to do it properly.”

Mr. Rubenstein and State Attorney General George Jepsen issued a notice to consumers Wednesday warning of potential “scammers” who “may already be seeking to exploit the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.” The two suggest donors give to “well-known, established charities.”

Mental-Health Concerns

Juanita T. James, chief executive of the Fairfield County Community Foundation, in Norwalk, Conn., said all the new fundraising “is a very rational response to a tragedy.”

But she said she was concerned that victims’ families aren’t “doubly victimized, getting aid and support and all of a sudden get whacked with a tax bill” if they are given money by a group that does not have legal status as a charity.

She said she would prefer that much of the money raised would provide long-term mental-health care. “I don’t want the families feeling completely abandoned after a week of intense publicity,” she said.

The Council on Foundations has organized a group call for Friday to enable Connecticut grant makers to discuss community needs, talk about long-term projects, and understand the challenges of establishing victims’ funds, said Kelly Shipp Simone, a lawyer at the council.

Transparency and Speed

If a global fund is established, charity leaders and grant makers want to avoid the problems that occurred in recent months with the global fund designed to help the victims of the Aurora, Colo., shootings.

There, victims and families accused Community First Foundation in Arvada, Colo., of delays in payments, restrictions on the use of the donations, and a lack of transparency.

Kenneth Feinberg, the Washington lawyer who disbursed money for 9/11 victims, was called in to oversee the money.

Cheryl Haggstrom, executive vice president of Community First, said in a prepared statement, “Once a foundation has accepted the responsibility of helping, it must also understand that there will be criticism.”

The goal with all victims’ funds, Mr. Feinberg said in an interview, is to “get the money out fast, get it out without restrictions, and do it pursuant to a very transparent, open process. And be prepared to take the heat. No good deed goes unpunished. Guaranteed.”

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