Aurora theater shooting: Victims' families say they have no voice about donations

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Update below: Eleven families who lost loved ones in the Aurora theater shooting came together for a news conference today, during which they cast blame on an organization called the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance and Governor John Hickenlooper.

They say they have not had any voice in the disbursement of more than $5 million collected in donations from the public and corporations.

In an event at the Summit Convention and Conference Center that stretched from 11 a.m. this morning to early afternoon, nearly twenty family members of victims told reporters that the organization overseeing the funds has a committee with no victim representation.

"We want the public to know what has been going on behind the scenes in regards to the funds that have been raised using the names and faces of our loved ones, supposedly on their behalf," said Tom Teves, father of victim Alex Teves and the first speaker at the event. He explained that an organization called Giving First began collecting millions of dollars within days of the shooting for the Aurora theater victims.

"To date, Giving First has collected over $5 million," he said. "We thank everyone for giving, and quite frankly, we are humbled by the generosity of the American public.

"We are certain that everyone who donated their hard earned wages intended for 100 percent of their donations to go directly to the victims," he continued, "and then each family affected would use those funds for what they most need to help their healing process. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case."

Continue reading for more on the news conference held by families of Aurora theater shooting victims. Teves said the first disbursement of funds went to ten area nonprofit organizations, including the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance. According to him, COVA set up a committee that did not include any victim representation to decide who would receive these donations and what they could be used for.

Teves then described a lengthy and exhausting back-and-forth between victims' families and the organization, in which he said Giving First failed to respond to their concerns and launched a "damage-control campaign in the local media" when the disagreements started to become public. He says that $350,000 was disbursed to COVA, which then cut checks of $5,000 each for the seventy victims. A handful of the families in attendance say they have received these checks, while others, including Teves, say they have not.

And there's still a lot more money in question.

"The disbursement came a month after the shootings but only days after our call," Teves said. "Victims, however, still have no voice in the disbursement process, and this only helps the seventy physically harmed. What about all the others?"

Family members at the emotional news conference -- who faced questions from dozens of reporters on a wide range of topics, not just the funding -- emphasized that they just want a transparent process that gives them a say in the disbursement. Teves called on Hickenlooper to step up and help improve communication and make sure the funds are going directly to those who need it.

We've reached out to the governor's office and Giving First and the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance for response.

Update, 3:54 p.m. August 28: Family members at the press conference frequently got emotional, telling the crowd of dozens of reporters in attendance that the lack of transparency in disbursing the donations has only added to their grief and pain as they continue to mourn their loved ones just a month after the shooting.

Melisa Cowden, the mother of the four children left behind by the death of Gordon Cowden, told the crowd through tears that she worries about her children's lives without a father.

"Since the day my kids lost their dad, I've been fighting against the idea that this is about the money. It's not about the money," she said. "I have four kids now that will go through the rest of their life without a dad. If there's a medical emergency in their lives, who do you usually turn to? You usually turn to your parents and say, 'I need help.' They don't have that anymore. They don't have somebody to love and comfort them, to walk them down the aisle, to be proud when they graduate from school. So it's not just about the money. It's about their futures...and it's not fair to me or anyone up here...that there's any feelings whatsoever that this is about the money. This is about taking care of our children and those that have been impacted by this horrible man's actions."

Family members throughout the news conference said that there has been a lack of leadership and a lack of communication regarding the donations.

"Governor Hickenlooper, you came and grieved with our families. We allowed you into our innermost circle at the worst time in our lives. We didn't do this lightly. You pledged twelve times, 'We will remember.' Are you a man who is true to his word or were they just words?" Teves said during his speech, adding that the families have seen limited victim assistance due to a "vacuum of communication and leadership."

He said the families want COVA, Giving First and the government to set aside politics. Part of the concern is that there is no victim representative on the board of the 7/20 Recovery Committee, a loosely organized group of community representatives and government entities, charged with distributing the remaining funds.

Continue reading for the governor's response and more photos. Eric Brown, a spokesman for Governor Hickenlooper, sent us the following statement this afternoon in response to the family's concerns:

Everyone involved is trying to do the right thing in a very difficult situation. We understand the frustration shared today by victims' families. That's why we have been advocating for them to have a greater voice in the process. We have also actively supported the 7/20 Recovery Committee to improve communication and the ongoing distribution of assistance. Families have received money and other services through the great generosity of others. They will receive more. A meeting is scheduled for Friday between families and the 7/20 Recovery Committee. We will continue to listen and do all we can to help ensure families get the support they need.

The families said that when they first became concerned that the donations were not going directly to the families, they offered Giving First a chance to explain how the victims' families would be more involved in the process. When their concerns were not properly addressed -- they even allege that, at one point, a Giving First leader suggested that they just start their own fund -- they decided to have a press conference last Friday, the 24th.

In response, Teves said, COVA's leadership asked that the group to delay the press conference to give them a chance to improve communication, and the families agreed. That Friday, the group of families received its first e-mail from COVA; it said that the organization had set up the 7/20 Recovery Committee but apparently made no mention of how victims might have a voice or input in the process as they said they had been promised.

At that point, the families decided to have the press conference after all, even though they're meeting with the organization on Friday. But they remain frustrated.

"Our loved ones have paid the ultimate price, but many others are still fighting for their lives and many of us will never be the same again. We are victims. We have knowledge that is unique and should be utilized," Teves said, adding that those who were actually in the theater and the families grieving need to be driving the decisions.

The conference was noteworthy in part because it was the first time all of these families had come together for a formal press conference. Some were meeting in person for the first time.

Responding to questions from reporters, family members went beyond concerns about the donations to talk about the difficult process of grieving.

"We just want to grieve. I'm sure all of us have spent nights and just days in bed," said Amanda Medek, sister of Micayla Medek, who died in the shooting. "How do you go to work after that?... If I get married, my little sister is not gonna be there to help me."

In describing the difficult process of moving on from the tragedy, she added, "It's so frustrating. 'How are you doing,' is the worst question in the entire world. 'How are you doing?' I'm doing terrible!"

Eirz Scott, the mother of Jarell Brooks, 19, who was shot in the leg, told reporters that ultimately donations are important during this difficult time.

"My son cannot work and we don't know when he's going to be able to return to work," she said, adding that the emotional trauma from the event has been tough on him and the family. "You can't leave people alone in a room for a long period of time.... We can't hardly be left alone. There's just some things going on with us psychologically, mentally, emotionally, that affected us to the point where we are not able to perform at a normal level.... Nobody is trying to get rich, we just want to be able to take care of our families."

Continue reading for a copy of the full statement from the press conference and more photos.

Here's a copy of the full statement.

Aurora Victims Press Statement 8.28

More from our Aurora Theater Shooting archive: "James Holmes case: Dr. Lynne Fenton's trial by media fire."

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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