NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Almost as soon as the shooting stopped, the aid began. It came from groups large and small, established and impromptu.
Three months after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, more than 40 organizations have raised roughly $15 million to help families of the victims, traumatized children and those who were first on the scene, create memorials and even, perhaps, help rebuild the school.
Now, with almost all the money still unspent, sharply differing views are emerging over what exactly should be done with it.
The bulk of the money, $10.2 million, was donated to the United Way of Western Connecticut, and has been transferred to a local foundation that will decide who should receive it and when, and how much should be set aside for community needs such as counseling and long-term issues.
But over the weekend, 50 parents and family members directly affected by mass tragedies -- including those that occurred at Aurora and Columbine, Colo.; the World Trade Center, and Virginia Tech University-- issued a statement saying that in the past, charities had failed to distribute aid to those most in need, and that, unless donated for specific purposes, funds raised for Newtown should be sent directly to victims and victims' families. A separate statement, signed by those family members and 14 more from Newtown, said this should become the national model for future tragedies.
Both United Way and local officials say their mandate is to serve an array of different if unequal needs, from helping families who lost children to providing mental health care for the hundreds of traumatized surviving children.
"From this point on, virtually every substantive decision is guaranteed to displease someone," said William Rodgers, Newtown's second selectman and a nonvoting director of the Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation, which was set up to disburse the $10.2 million. "That's the one thing we were uniformly told by people at all the tragedy sites like Columbine and Aurora that we consulted. To a person, they all said, 'You need thick-skinned people, because this will be a thankless job.' "
Some family members said they were concerned that donated money could benefit existing charities and extraneous causes more than victims. Their worries echo those heard after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when the Red Cross, after widespread criticism, announced that it would spend its entire Liberty Disaster Fund, more than $500 million, on people affected by the attacks, rather than keeping some of it in reserve for responding to future attacks and other needs.
Cristina Hassinger, daughter of the Sandy Hook principal, Dawn Hochsprung, one of the six educators killed along with 20 children at the school Dec. 14, said the donated money was meant for victims and their families and should go directly to them. "I feel as though the United Way has been kind of stringing us along while they send the money to where they want it to go," she said. "At first, I thought maybe I was a little crazy thinking this, but everything I've learned about other tragedies has confirmed that this is a pattern, where large nonprofits step up after a tragedy and then take the money and do with it what they please."
Kim Morgan, chief executive officer of the United Way of Western Connecticut, said donors had the option of contributing to other funds set aside for those who lost family members or for other victims. But she said the main fund was intentionally unrestricted, so local residents could decide how best to allocate it.