Stalwart Advocate for Children, The Disabled, Eileen P. Sweeney

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006; C06

Eileen P. Sweeney, 54, a nationally recognized expert on issues affecting people with disabilities who receive federal welfare benefits, died June 13 of complications of breast cancer at Washington Hospital Center. She lived in Washington.

From the time she was in college through her work as a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, she sought to improve the lives of children, battered women, senior citizens, the poor and people with disabilities. Since 1998, her focus had been the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and the Social Security and Supplemental Security Income program.

Before joining the center, Ms. Sweeney was director of government affairs at the Children's Defense Fund for six years. She also was a legal services lawyer at the National Senior Citizens Law Center for 11 years and at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago for three years.

An advocate for the invisible in society, Ms. Sweeney assembled coalitions and coordinated litigation to help the people she thought needed it most. She also was a presence on numerous boards and task forces.

As recently as March, she testified before the Senate Finance Committee on administrative challenges facing the Social Security Administration. She represented a coalition of more than 100 national organizations as she urged Congress to ensure that the Social Security Administration receive adequate funds to maintain and improve its work.

"Without a doubt, Eileen improved the lives of literally millions of Americans," James D. Weill, who met Ms. Sweeney when she was a law school intern, said at her funeral. "She was an important leader in a huge expanse of successful struggles to better the lives of vulnerable people."

Weill, who is president of the Food Research and Action Center, recalled that Ms. Sweeney played a key role in 1993 in a Children's Defense Fund coalition that supported an "unlikely bundling" of initiatives for children in foster care, vaccines, food stamps and tax credits. From the 1980s to the present, she also built national networks and coalitions in which she connected disability rights and welfare advocacy communities.

Born in Evanston, Ill., the eldest of 10 children in an Irish Catholic family, Ms. Sweeney grew up in Glenview, Ill. She was "a perfect match of protector, giver, organizer, worrier and leader," said her sister Gail S. Ghere.

She went to Northwestern University in Evanston, where she received a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1973 and a law degree in 1976. In law school, she started her career with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago.

In 1985, she received the Reginald Heber Smith Award from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association for her work on behalf of low-income people.

In the 1990s, she served on a Social Security Income modernization panel and was a member of the National Academy of Social Insurance's disability policy panel, studying disability and work. She co-chaired the academy's second conference on SSI childhood disability in 2000.

In 2004 and 2005, Ms. Sweeney led a panel at the University of Illinois's Disability Research Institute that advised the Social Security Administration on how best to design software to assist Social Security and SSI disability beneficiaries interested in returning to work.

She also was on a committee at the National Academy of Sciences' Center for Economic, Governance, and International Studies that is studying the Social Security Administration's payment policies and procedures. She co-chaired the Social Security Task Force of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, a coalition of national organizations advocating on behalf of the 54 million Americans with disabilities.

Ms. Sweeney received the Commissioner's Citation from the Social Security commissioner in 2004.

As much as she gave to the cause of social justice, she also gave to her family and friends, her husband said.

"I always found it amazing that she could give 100 percent to me and our children and at the same time manage to give 100 percent to her work and the causes she fought for," Larry Johnston said. "Nothing gave her more joy in life than helping others."

Ms. Sweeney was active at St. Peter's Interparish School on Capitol Hill, where she lived, serving on the school board and in the PTA. She also volunteered at the Washington Jesuit Academy, tutoring teenage boys who needed help to enter high school.

In her spare time, she collected fabric and enjoyed quilting.

Besides her husband, survivors include three children, Edward Sweeney Johnston of Ann Arbor, Mich., Matthew Sweeney Johnston of New York and Kathleen Sweeney Johnston of Providence, R.I.; her parents, Howard and Kathleen Sweeney of Northbrook, Ill.; six sisters; and three brothers.

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