Tragedy & charity a complex relationship

Tragedies bring out the best - and the worst - in human behavior.

Every natural or man-made disaster inspires a flood of philanthropy from well-meaning, sympathetic individuals determined to help victims of misfortune.

Unfortunately, calamity-driven charities also attract a preponderance of predatory scam artists who submit phony claims or otherwise try to fraudulently tap into funds.

In addition, victims themselves sometimes react with anger rather than appreciation because of bitter disagreements over who should get money, or how much.

Three tragic events that touched this region along with the rest of the nation - Hurricane Sandy, the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown and the Boston Marathon bombings - all have illustrated such conflicting responses.

Sandy, which slammed into Cuba as a hurricane last October before evolving into a so-called "superstorm" by the time it pummeled the Northeast, was the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of 2012, and the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history. By the time it finally fizzled out the 1,100-mile-wide storm killed 286 people and caused more than $68 billion in damage.

The American Red Cross and other established charities took the lead in raising money and distributing emergency supplies, joined by countless smaller organizations as well as by impromptu neighborhood groups. Controversy didn't develop until Congress had to debate how much money to appropriate for disaster relief.

Like so many issues brought to Washington these days the appropriation bill was tainted by partisan politics before President Barack Obama finally signed the Superstorm Sandy Supplemental Appropriations bill into law, bringing the total amount of federal funds for Sandy aid to $60.2 billion.

As for the Newtown shooting spree last December, which killed 20 students and six adults inside the elementary school, in addition to the alleged gunman and his mother, the nation responded with an outpouring of cash that required the services of a special panel to decide how it would be distributed.

The formula for dividing up about $11.6 million was finally approved last month re by a three-member committee, headed by retired a U.S. District Court judge and advised by a lawyer who handled the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and is now working on the fund set up to aid victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.

About $281,000 apiece will go to the families of the 26 victims. Two adults who were shot in the school would split $150,000, and the 12 families of surviving children who witnessed the shootings will get $20,000 each.

Dr. Charles Herrick, a Danbury psychiatrist who is overseeing the fund distribution, concedes giving money to victims sometimes seems like an inappropriate response.

"Money has been raised, many of them feel, off the backs of their children," he said. "Nobody wants to profit from this."

Meanwhile, more than 40 charitable groups have collected more than $20 million since the Dec. 14 shooting.

Some of that money has been used for counseling, some to buy school supplies, some to create an art center to display drawings sent to Newtown by children from around the world.

Finally, The One Fund, formed to help victims of the April 15 bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured 264 others, has to date raised more than $64 million.

That money will not only compensate the families of slain victims but also help pay for long-term care of those who suffered extensive injuries. People who lost both legs are due to receive about $2 million to offset medical costs.

But the fund has been a magnet for potential crooks.

This month police arrested a 22-year-old Boston man who allegedly applied for a $2 million grant on behalf of an injured aunt. Police said the claim was fraudulent.

Authorities also charged a 26-year-old New York women who allegedly defrauded The One Fund of nearly $500,000 by falsely claiming she sustained a brain injury from the attack.

This newspaper does not intend to discourage charity, and praises those who want to help needy victims of any tragedy. It may well be true that it's the thought that counts. But anyone considering a contribution should take the time to think about how best they can help, then determine the legitimacy of the charitable organization, before sending a check.

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