N.C. panel: Pay eugenics victims $50,000

Payments subject to legislative OK

ttomlinson@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 11, 2012 

— A governor's task force voted Tuesday to recommend paying $50,000 each to survivors who were sterilized under North Carolina's eugenics program.

The legislature will have to approve any payments. If that happens, North Carolina will be the first state to compensate victims of programs that sterilized tens of thousands of poor, sick and mentally challenged people across the country.

The N.C. Eugenics Board approved sterilizing about 7,600 people between 1929 and 1974. The state expanded its program in the '40s and '50s, even as other states ended or reduced theirs because of the eugenics connection to Nazi Germany in World War II. Mecklenburg County, under longtime welfare director Wallace Kuralt, sterilized more people than any other N.C. county by far. Dr. Laura Gerald, chairwoman of the task force, said her group wanted to send a message: "We in North Carolina are people who pay for our mistakes."

Legislators and advocates have been pushing for compensation for a decade. But the idea got traction last year after Gov. Bev Perdue formed the task force and created a state office to track down victims. The state estimates that 1,500 to 2,000 are still alive. As of Tuesday, only 72 had come forward and been verified. Officials expect that number to grow now that a specific recommendation is on the table.

Some cases approved by the Eugenics Board were people who were mentally ill and sexually aggressive, and families who wanted to stop having children.

But the board also authorized sterilizing people who were poor, or part of large families, or whose parents worried that men might take advantage of them. Some victims were as young as 10.

The task force had originally talked about $20,000 for each living victim. But survivors and their families said that amount wasn't enough. One group of victims and family members passed around a proposal Tuesday that would give $1 million to each living victim and the estate of each victim who has died. The task force's proposal doesn't provide any money for families if the victim already has died.

Gerald said the task force tried to balance what survivors deserve against what the state has the will to pay. If 1,500 people are eventually identified as living victims, paying them $50,000 each would cost the state $75 million. The task force's proposal gives people three years to come forward from the time a package becomes official. It also calls for mental-health counseling and relief from state taxes on the compensation payment.

Victims and family members have been coming to the meetings and have spoken out often. On Tuesday, they didn't. Many said afterward that the package was tough to accept, but they understood the compromise.

"I thought they should've placed a little more value on it," said Sadie Long, guardian of Janice Black, a Charlotte resident who was sterilized in 1971. "But at some point they've got to move on and try to get this done."

House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Cornelius, supports some sort of compensation for victims. He has said that he'll put together a legislative committee to craft a bill and that he wants to vote during the legislature's session that starts in May.

After it was over, the group of victims and family members lingered in the little conference room. A year ago, most of them didn't know anyone else who had been sterilized by the state. Now the country - and increasingly, the world - knows about them. NBC and The New York Times have done stories. A French journalist was in Charlotte on Monday to talk to Janice Black and Sadie Long. Most of all, though, now they know each other. They've been swapping phone numbers for support.

As the task force members left the room, Elaine Riddick - a victim who grew up in Winfall, in Eastern North Carolina - came over to Black and Long. "That's it for now," she said.

Tomlinson: 704-358-5227

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