N.C. Senate rejects plan to compensate state sterilization victims

jfrank@newsobserver.com June 20, 2012 

— North Carolina’s attempt to become the first state to compensate people sterilized in a decades-long program ended Wednesday after Senate Republicans refused to support a bipartisan plan to give victims $50,000 each.

The House put $10 million in the state budget to pay eugenics victims. But it didn’t survive negotiations with the Senate, where conservative lawmakers disagreed on whether to compensate victims.

“I’m sorry it happened,” said Sen. Don East, a chief critic. “I just don’t think money fixes it.”

The defeat is a major blow to House Speaker Thom Tillis, who championed the legislation throughout the session. Tillis took to the House floor to trumpet the plan, calling it a “chance to make history.”

He called the money cut from the budget a “personal failure” and pledged to return to the issue next session. “It’s something that I’ll continue to work on,” Tillis said.

North Carolina ran one of the most active eugenics programs in the nation after it approved a law creating the program in 1929. A state board ordered sterilizations for poor, feeble-minded, mentally diseased or people considered likely to have disabled children. The program continued until 1974.

Democratic Gov. Mike Easley issued a formal apology for the state’s role in the program in 2002 and a number of special committees since then looked into ways to make amends. With Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s backing and Tillis’ support, this effort received the most serious attention.

‘Devastated victims’

The N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation estimates between 1,350 and 1,800 victims are still living with 146 verified so far. Charmaine Fuller Cooper, the executive director, said the foundation’s office will shut down at the end of the month because state funding will end.

“They have really devastated victims,” she said. “Even though they are 80-, 90-years-old, they remember it vividly. They had to reopen those old wounds. We have had people come forward and relive those memories and have had people tell their families and nothing happens. They’re angry and they have justification in how they feel.”

Elaine Riddick, who was raped as a young girl and sterilized after she gave birth, was one of the victims who testified. She said she has decided to initiate a class action suit against the state.

“We’ve given North Carolina a chance to address their wrongs,” she said. “There is a class action suit as we speak.”

A spokeswoman for Riddick said she is being represented by Willie Gary, the Florida multimillionaire lawyer who is on the board of Shaw University. Riddick is the only client now, but there will be others, the spokeswoman said.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, said compensation is an urgent matter. “These people are dying,” he said. “Every year we delay this, that’s one additional year that potential people that could file for claims, that could be compensated for rights they lost, won’t have that opportunity.”

Archdale Sen. Jerry Tillman, a top Republican lawmaker, said the state didn’t have the money to compensate victims and blamed previous inaction by Democrats.

“A great wrong was done, but we didn’t do it,” he said. Democrats “had many, many opportunities to fix it and punted that ball down. Now they’ve got a time where we’ve got a huge hole in the budget and they’re expecting taxpayers to pay for this.”

Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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