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Social Work Provides Research and Expertise as New York Continues Sept. 11 Recovery Effort

By James Devitt and Jo Kadlecek

While financial contributions made in response to the Sept. 11 attacks are beginning to be distributed to victims' families, often overlooked are the federal programs in place prior to the attacks that assist those who lose a family member to a tragedy or catastrophe.

"In September, a husband in New York City whose wife had been killed at the World Trade Center was ready to sell his home, because he, as a stay-at-home father, could not afford to keep it," said Larry Massanari, acting commissioner for Social Security, during his testimony before the House Committee on Ways and Means. "He was able to take it off the market after a Social Security representative contacted him to let him know that he and his family were eligible for survivors benefits."

In an effort to increase public awareness of such benefits, the Clearinghouse on International Developments in Child, Youth and Family Policies, a project of Columbia's Institute for Child and Family Policy at the School of Social Work, prepared a paper, "Survivor Benefits: First Line of Protection In Wake of Recent Tragedies." The document describes the resources available to victims of tragedies and compares these benefits to those in other industrialized nations.

Clearinghouse researchers found that the moderate cash benefits provided for survivor families in the United States are an important source of income for many families recouping from the death of a family member. In 2001, nearly 2 million children in the United States received survivor benefits, with the average benefit of $554 per child. The Social Security Administration estimates that currently 98 out of every 100 children in the United States can receive survivor benefits if a working parent should die.

Other countries have updated their survivor benefit programs to reflect some of the changing needs and realities of surviving spouses and children. For example, acknowledging the need for surviving spouses to return to or to increase their work efforts, both France and Norway offer enhanced child-care benefits in addition to the cash benefits they provide survivor families. Other countries, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, extend eligibility for benefits to children of co-habitating, as well as legally married, partners. Families in other countries are also more likely than those in the United States to receive assistance immediately following their loss in the form of generous lump-sum payments. These benefits can help cushion the initial economic pressures survivor families often experience.

In addition, the U.S. also trails most other industrialized nations in the duration of the benefits children are eligible to receive. In the United States, unmarried children can receive benefits until age 18 or up to age 19, if they are attending secondary school full-time. In many industrial countries, survivor benefits to children generally continue through the completion of mandated or formal education, including university education, which varies from age 18 to 27.

The Clearinghouse is a web-based databank that provides cross-national, comparative information about the policies, programs, benefits and services available in the advanced industrialized countries to address child, youth and family needs. Funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation, the Clearinghouse is designed to serve the news media, public officials and their staffs, public and private agency administrators and their board members, scholars and students.

The School of Social Work has also offered hands-on expertise to assist in the Sept. 11 recovery effort. With existing ties to more than 400 social service agencies, hospitals and schools in the New York metropolitan area, the school's students, faculty and alumni were well-prepared to respond to New York City's needs.

"We will not permit the hatred or the immediate shock of the catastrophe stemming from it to paralyze us, or interfere with our mission, even under the most trying circumstances," said Interim Dean Sheila B. Kamerman.

The school's contributions to the recovery efforts, which have centered on grief counseling and training sessions across the city, have gone beyond days immediately following Sept. 11.

Faculty and field instructors continue to offer trauma and stress reduction training sessions for administrators and staff in several public and private agencies and organizations, including the Salvation Army, Manhattan Comprehensive Day and Night High School, New York City's Administration for Children's services and Jewish Home and Hospital Administrators and staff.

Faculty and field instructors are also providing personnel at the New York City Fire Department with trauma counseling and counseling families of lost firefighters. In addition, Social Work professor Tazuko Shibuzawa and several Japanese-American Social Work alumni provided counseling services to the Consulate General of Japan, the Japanese American Social Services agency and several other organizations with Japanese employees. And social work faculty and staff led three training workshops for social work alumni volunteering as mental health counselors

The school's efforts extended to the Columbia campus and the surrounding community. During the month of October, social work faculty ran training sessions, "Coping Support for Employees," for Columbia's Human Resources Department. Forty-three clinical practice faculty, field advisors, and administrators have provided individual counseling services, led group discussions and offered support services for teachers, children and parents in Community School District 5.

In order to make its resources readily available in the future, the school prepared materials on coping with post-traumatic stress.

Published: Dec 11, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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