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September 11 Victims Compensation Debate Over Definition of Family - 2001-12-16

After the September 11 terrorist attacks Congress created a federal Victim Compensation Fund to reimburse the families of those who died from acts of terrorism. Victims can also apply to state compensation funds. The spouses and blood relatives of terrorism survivors are clearly eligible for these programs. But that may not be the case for others, whose legal status could leave them on the outside looking in. In his condominium north of San Francisco, Keith Bradkowski looks through photographs of himself and Jeff Coleman, his partner of 11 years. The very first photo in the album shows Jeff on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Behind him in the distance, the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center. Mr. Coleman worked as a flight attendant for American Airlines, and he was aboard Flight 11 the morning hijackers crashed it into New York's tallest building. Keith Bradkowski was listed as his next of kin. "In fact, the day of the tragedy, I was the one who was notified by American Airlines. And then it was my responsibility to notify Jeff's parents about the tragedy," he says.

But when American Airlines paid $25,000 to the families of employees who died September 11, the money went not to Mr. Bradkowski, but to his late partner's parents. "Had I been recognized as a spouse, there would have been no question related to, you know, final paychecks, or death benefits, or retirement earnings and so forth," he says. "And all of this has been kind of thrown up in the air now, so I'm having to deal with all of these issues."

Mr. Bradkowski is luckier than some. He and Mr. Coleman were registered as domestic partners with the state of California. The state's Victim Compensation Fund recognizes domestic partners, so he can apply there for funds. But the rules are different in each state.

In New York, where most of the victims lived or worked, Governor George Pataki recently extended the state's definition of family to include domestic partners. New Jersey has a similar provision, but Connecticut does not. Neither does Virginia, where terrorists crashed a plane into the Pentagon. Mary Ware is director of the Virginia Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. "The people eligible are parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses and children of the victim. It limits you to a direct, familial line with the victim. Left out of that list would be cousins, aunts, uncles, domestic partners, fiances ex-spouses are left out of that list," she says.

In some cases, exceptions will be made if a survivor is named as the executor in a victim's will, but still, dozens of people nationwide could fall through the cracks: couples living together but not married, the families of immigrants, divorced spouses or people who may have been financially dependent on a victim of 9-11 but who aren't recognized by the law.

"If the people of America are dissatisfied with the definition of family and spouses, then I think that's where the problem lies. And if we as a democracy want to change that, that's where we should go," says John Beartoo, President of the National Taxpayers Union. Mr. Beartoo wants stricter limits on federal disaster relief spending, including survivors' compensation. A special master appointed by Attorney General Ashcroft will oversee the federal victims fund and decide who can apply to it. Mr. Beartoo thinks the Department of Justice should stick to what he calls "the bright line of family" as a legal definition for survivors. "No matter where the federal government draws that line, someone somewhere is going to be dissatisfied," he says.

Mr. Beartoo thinks those who fall outside the government's definition of "family" should rely on private charities like the Red Cross, and a big fight is brewing. A survivor could easily get a million dollars or more for their losses from the fund set up by Congress. Gay and lesbian advocats are lobbying behind the scenes for an inclusive definition of family. Several dozen members of Congress have added their voice. They've written a bipartisan letter to Attorney General Ashcroft urging inclusion of domestic partners and others who shared residences, bank accounts, or significant living expenses. If they win, it would be the de facto recognition of gay relationships - something conservative groups will fight fiercely to stop.

The Association of Trial Lawyers of America is helping victims get compensation. Larry Stewart, President of Trial Lawyers Care, thinks the federal government should adopt a broad definition of family. "The terrorists didn't single out just heterosexual married individuals to attack," he says. "They attacked the entire nation, and everyone in this nation, and our nation has responded and everyone should be taken care of to the same degree."

The Department of Justice is expected to release its draft regulations deciding who should receive compensation sometime before Christmas.