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Last Updated: Friday, 10 September, 2004, 10:02 GMT 11:02 UK
Helping the children of 9/11
Matthew Wells
By Matthew Wells
New York

Bereaved children of the 11 September attacks have "fallen under the radar" when it comes to long-term care, despite the huge sums of money raised for families, say clinical psychologists responsible for treating them on the eve of this third anniversary.

Child's painting of firefighter father
Two-thirds of all firefighters who died on 9/11 lived in Long Island
"Until very recently for example, no-one knew how many children were actually bereaved," said Dr Claude Chemtob, of the trauma recovery programme at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

His unit has calculated that some 2,990 children lost a parent up to the age of 18. Almost 100 of them are babies born after the World Trade Center disaster.

"It's extremely important to take each child, and each family and evaluate where they are in their recovery now. We'll then make sure each is getting the services they need, and follow each child and family, into the future until they are 18," said Dr Chemtob.

Many families of 9/11 victims have been given cash sums of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and an astonishing $3bn was raised internationally on their behalf. Three years on, nearly all of it has been spent.

"These families have been given a lot," said Dr Chemtob. "But they've also suffered a lot. In some ways they are seen as civilian victims of war, almost like veterans."

'Regional safe harbour'

At a joint press conference highlighting the long-term care aims of the Long Island-based, World Trade Center Family Center, widows joined psychologists and other carers against a backdrop of art work painted as part of a bereaved child therapy programme.

Margie Miller
To be murdered live on TV is unusual enough. To get to see it every day for three years - there's not a day you don't hear it, or see it
Margie Miller
Described as a "regional safe harbour", the Family Center has worked with 400 families since its work began straight after the attacks.

To illustrate how concentrated the loss was in their suburban county, two-thirds of all the firefighters who died that day lived in the vicinity.

In a week that has seen the deaths of hundreds of children on the other side of the world, several 9/11 widows here volunteered their empathy for the families mourning in Beslan.

Margie Miller, 54, lost her husband Joel in Tower One of the World Trade Center, and is now looking after their three children.

"I cried. I looked at those families and the funerals, with pictures of their babies, and said - that's exactly what we do here."

Child's painting
The art work is part of a bereaved child therapy programme
The psychologist who founded the WTC Family Center, Dr Thomas Demaria, said that with the support of the US State Department, he had written to Moscow offering help in establishing a trauma centre in Beslan.

"We hope that they will be able to learn from our experience. We threw out all the rule books with our journey, and there will be things in common.

"The question everyone asks is: 'Did my loved-one suffer. What were they feeling when they died?' What's hard, is you're never going to know for sure. That deep hurt settles in, and then anger happens."

Beslan and New York also share the rare perspective that death occurred in full view of the world's cameras and the fallout continues at the centre of public life and political debate, said Mrs Miller.

"To be murdered live on television is unusual enough. To get to see it every day for three years - there's not a day you don't hear it, or see it. On the other hand, you don't want people to forget. It just hurts so much."

Allison Hobbs
My kids are my most important thing. I need to know there's somebody there to help guide me
Allison Hobbs
That was a sentiment shared by another widow whose children had painted some of the art work on display, 43-year-old Allison Hobbs. She said the repeated invocation of 9/11 at the recent Republican convention had been hard to bear.

"I was watching with my daughter, and it was brought up so much. I don't think I resent the fact they did it, but there could have been less imagery involved all the time."

She outlined why she thinks long-term federal funding should be provided to keep places like the WTC Family Center going. Running costs are met at the moment on a year-by-year grant basis.

"My kids are my most important thing," said Mrs Hobbs. "I need to know there's somebody there to help guide me.

"I don't know if I'm doing this right, and what they are feeling now is very different from how they felt two years ago, or how they'll be in two years' time."

'Reality is setting in'

For the city's official commemoration on Saturday at Ground Zero, there will be an emphasis on the adults left behind, unlike last year's event where children literally took centre stage, reading the names of the dead.

"I think it's good. I look at my mother-in-law, and my parents who lost a son-in-law, and it's hard for them too. Children and spouses get so much attention," said Mrs Hobbs.

Child's painting of WTC towers
A child's painting of the Twin Towers
"How that ceremony works to me, is really the least important thing," said Mrs Miller. "Unfortunately, we have many more years to deal with this."

She pointed out that three years on, almost half of the bereaved families have yet to have a funeral, as remains are proving very hard to identify categorically. A small portion of bone was all that could be identified in her husband's case.

"This is not going away, three years later. We're still having funerals, still dealing with those decisions on what to do. That will continue on into the future," she said.

Is the cliche of time being a great healer inappropriate for the 9/11 families, I asked?

"People the first year were so numb, they couldn't process it. Year two, the pain really hit them, and now maybe in year three, the reality is setting in. This is truly my life."


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