By Martha Waggoner
ABOVE PHOTO: Elaine Riddick, right, is comforted by her son Tony Riddick as she testifies before the Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation task force compensation hearing in Raleigh, N.C, June 22, 2011. A couple thousand people in North Carolina who were forced to undergo sterilizations decades ago should get compensation from state government, a task force investigating the involuntary procedures said in a report Monday, Aug. 1, 2011, though the panel was unsure of exactly how much money to recommend.
(AP Photo/Jim R. Bounds, file)
RALEIGH, N.C. — A couple of thousand people in North Carolina who were forced to undergo sterilizations decades ago should get compensation from state government, a task force investigating the involuntary procedures said in a report Monday, though the panel was unsure of exactly how much money to recommend. Victims blasted report, saying the state has procrastinated too long on a decision.
North Carolina is one of about a half dozen states to apologize for past eugenics programs, but it is alone in trying to put together a plan to compensate victims.
Figures ranging from $20,000 to $50,000 have been suggested for the victims, but the Eugenics Task Force said in a draft report that it needs more time to consider those and other amounts. The task force said it doesn’t want to trivialize the suffering and that no amount of damages is meant to place a value on a victim’s life or life lost.
“I don’t think it’s fair to the victims that they’re doing this at their own pace,” said 57-year-old Elaine Riddick of Atlanta, who was sterilized when she was 14 years old. “And one thing about it is people die every day. And I think they need to get on up and do what they need to do. Get it over with. … Can you imagine how much money they have put out just to study this case?”
State Rep. Larry Womble, the lawmaker most involved in the issue, has been working on compensation for victims for 10 years, but said the state seems to be closer than ever to paying victims. The Democrat urged patience and said he looked forward to the final report, due Feb. 1.
“There are times that I get frustrated, too,” said Womble, a Democrat. “We must remember we’re in it for the long run, and government has a tendency to work slowly anyway. But it seems like this is very serious now.”
About 7,600 people, most of them women or girls, were sterilized under North Carolina’s eugenics program. Unlike most states, North Carolina ramped up its sterilizations after World War II, despite associations between eugenics and Nazi Germany, which took eugenics to even more horrifying lengths. Around 70 percent of all North Carolina’s sterilizations were performed after the war, peaking in the 1950s, according to state records. The program was shuttered in 1977.
The task force members said any compensation should be exempt from state taxes. They also want to consider offering state health benefits to living victims and weigh whether to compensate victims’ estates.
Australia Clay’s mother, Margaret Helen Cheek, was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and sterilized in 1965 after having three children. Clay believes her mother, who died of a stroke in February 1978, only suffered from post-partum depression.
“There just was a holocaust in our state, and this is something the state is going to have to pay for. I am disappointed that they did not make the decision that if the victim is dead, the amount of compensation would go to the estate,” said Clay, 64, of Durham. “Twenty-thousand dollars is not enough. Well, $1 million wouldn’t be enough.”
The state would have to find compensation money in a lean budget year and the Legislature would have to approve any payments.
“We know that in a period of tight budgets, compensation may not be popular among your constituents,” the task force said in a letter to Gov. Beverly Perdue that accompanies the report. “For many citizens, it may be hard to justify spending millions when the state is cutting back on other essential services. But the fact is, there never will be a good time to redress these wrongs and the victims have already waited too long.”
A spokeswoman said the governor had no immediate comment.
The task force pointed out that other studies in North Carolina also have recommended compensation, most recently in 2008, when the N.C. House of Representatives Study on Eugenics suggested $20,000 to surviving victims only.
Nationwide, there were more than 60,000 known victims of sterilization programs, with perhaps another 40,000 sterilized through “unofficial” channels like hospitals or local health departments working on their own initiative. Eugenics was aimed at creating a better society by filtering out people considered undesirable, ranging from criminals to those imprecisely designated as “feeble-minded.”
In North Carolina, people as young as 10 were sterilized for offenses as minor as not getting along with schoolmates, being promiscuous or running afoul of local social workers or doctors. The state’s law allowed such professionals to refer people to the state Eugenics Board for sterilization. In other states, people had to be jailed or institutionalized before they could be sterilized.