HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The foundation overseeing the largest pot of donations sent to Newtown following the December massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School announced Thursday it is nearly doubling the amount of its initial disbursement.
The Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation, which oversees about $11 million, said it would increase the amount of money going to the 40 families most affected by the tragedy from $4 million to $7.7 million.
The funds will be distributed by May 23, the foundation said.
The beneficiaries will include the families of the 26 people killed, 12 surviving children from the classrooms where people were shot and the two people wounded during the shooting.
Dr. Charles Herrick, a member of the foundation's board of directors, said the decision came as a result of meetings with family members, who said they would prefer one lump-sum dispersal, rather than having the money sent to them over time.
"They still are in quite a bit of pain, and we didn't want this to be contributing to that," he said. "We really felt that we needed to take their ideas into consideration and do it once, so that they could move on."
The foundation had originally planned to form committees to meet, hold hearings and decide how to spend the $11 million. The group planned to discuss ideas ranging from a permanent memorial to the victims, to a mental health fund for first responders, to scholarships for children at the school.
It announced the initial $4 million dispersal two weeks ago after some victims' families publicly complained the process was moving too slowly.
A daughter of Dawn Hochsprung, the Sandy Hook principal killed in the shooting, wrote on her Facebook page in February that families were being asked for proof of hardship before the smallest disbursements were issued.
"We've been victimized enough," Cristina Lafferty Hassinger said in the post. "We shouldn't have to fight for what is rightfully ours, but we won't be taken advantage of in our darkest hour."
Herrick said some families indicated they needed the money because of the loss of income after the tragedy, others were seeking funds for charities they have set up or are supporting, and still others just wanted the process to be over, so they could go on with their lives.
The foundation also announced Thursday that retired U.S. District Court Judge Alan Nevas will chair the initial distribution committee, which will also include two Newtown residents, Dr. John Woodall, a psychiatrist with an expertise in post-traumatic stress disorder, and Joe Smialowski, a senior executive at Citigroup.
The panel will be advised by attorney Kenneth Feinberg, an expert in disaster-fund management who handled the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and is currently working on the fund set up to aid victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.
"That also was at the request of the families, that we bring in an independent third party," Herrick said.
The distribution panel plans to meet with the families again at two hearings on May 7 and 8, to determine how much each will receive, Herrick said.
Feinberg said he was honored to assist the distribution committee and that his sole objective was to distribute the available compensation by May 23, 2013, to all eligible claimants, without restriction or precondition."
Feinberg told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday that the hearings are important to the process, allowing families to vent, as well as helping to answer the question of how the money is allocated.
"No one has decided, as far as I know in Newtown, who gets what," he said. "No one has decided whether the families should get the same amount. ... What about the children who were in the classroom and suffered mental trauma observing all of this? No decision has been made yet."
Herrick said the foundation still plans to have a deliberate process to determine how to spend the remaining $3.3 million, and whether to keep some of it as an investment tool, keeping in mind that many of the survivors of the massacre are children who may need help in the years to come.
"We need to insure that funds will be available in the future to meet those children's needs, should they have them," he said. "So, we do plan on spending all the money, but we plan to spend it over time."
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