Task force: Make prompt payments to sterilization victims, document troubling history

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North Carolina should pay a significant sum to living victims of the state’s decades-long sterilization program and do it soon, a task force recommended in its final report to Gov. Bev Perdue.

The report, issued Jan. 27 by a five-member task force appointed by Perdue, makes the most definitive and potentially viable case yet for compensating the survivors of North Carolina’s officially sanctioned eugenics program.

From the early 1930s to the early 1970s, some 7,600 North Carolinians were sterilized after being judged “feebleminded,” recklessly promiscuous, epileptic or some combination thereof. The majority were poor white women, and the program disproportionately targeted racial minorities.

Eugenics programs took place in 32 states, but North Carolina is the only one to have come this far in trying to redress the attendant abuses.

Most of Western North Carolina didn’t actively participate in the program, but Buncombe County did. As Carolina Public Press reported last summer, Buncombe was home to a key eugenics proponent who was the county’s superintendent for public welfare. Of the state’s 100 counties, Buncombe had the fifth most sterilizations.

The report, which can be downloaded and read here [PDF - large file], is a major milestone in the effort to bring some measure of justice to the state’s sterilization victims, which has failed in previous legal and legislative challenges.

It offers revealing indications of the task force’s internal divides, which were relatively few but centered around the question of how much to pay victims, and makes the case that there is both the moral necessity and political will available now to right what remains of historic wrongs.

The task force made four main recommendations, putting a focus on spreading the word about what occurred and serving the victims who remain alive.

During a series of public meetings, “We heard about their shame, their sense of betrayal and their lives forever altered by the intrusion of government into a citizen’s most basic human right,” the report noted. See a summary of its main points below.

Keeping the effort alive

Perdue also created the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, a small state office that is coordinating the quest for compensation.

The task force recommended that the foundation’s work and funding be continued so that it can verify victims, do more outreach to both victims and the public at large, administer any financial compensation and make sure that mental health benefits are developed and offered.

Paying the price

After a long process, the task force fixed on figure for compensation: a lump sum of $50,000 of state funds to each verified victim.

“No amount of money can adequately pay for the harm done to these citizens, but financial compensation and other services we recommend will nonetheless provide meaningful assistance,” the report said. “The compensation package we recommend sends a clear message that we in North Carolina are a people who pay for our mistakes and that we do not tolerate bureaucracies that trample on basic human rights.”

Between 1,500 and 2,000 victims are probably still alive, the report estimates. So far, less than 100 have come forward and been verified.

The question of exactly how much to offer victims dogged the task force to the end of its deliberations. In its final meeting on Jan. 10, minutes included in the report show, two members advocated a baseline payment of $20,000 while three members successfully pushed for $50,000.

Mental health services considered

Sterilization victims often “suffered a lifetime of psychological disorders,” the report noted, saying that the state should pay for a wide range of their treatments and services while developing new ones specific to the victims’ needs.

Making program’s history known

The task force also recommended funding an oral history project and renewed funding for a traveling exhibit to preserve and spread the stories of those who were sterilized.

“Today, the state must do everything it can to make sure that it never repeats these abuses,” the report said. “A strong public education campaign will serve as a deterrent.”

Task force shows next steps 

To go forward, the recommended measures would need state funding, which must be approved by the N.C. General Assembly.

Any legislative remedy must happen soon, given the demographics. Most survivors of the sterilization program are getting on in years, and “the victims have already waited too long,” the report asserted.

The heightened media and public attention to eugenics in recent years has set the stage for making official amends, the task force argued.

In a letter to Perdue that accompanied the report, the members wrote, “We believe that bi‐partisan support is growing for compensation and that the state can seize the moment.”

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About the Author

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the Investigations and Open Government Editor at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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