Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the week: Undeterred, she still tries to find justice for victims

CorrespondentJuly 28, 2012 

TARHEEL-NE-072612-RTW

Charmaine Fuller Cooper, director and sole employee of the NC Justice for Victims Sterilization Foundation, photographed in her office on Thursday July 26, 2012 in Raleigh, N.C.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com

  • Charmaine S. Fuller Cooper Born: March 13, 1980, in Henderson Residence: Durham Career: Executive director, N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation Education: B.A., political science, N.C. Central University; master of public administration, N.C. State University Awards: Citizen Award, Independent Weekly, 2012; Administrator Extra Effort Award, N.C. Department of Administration, 2011 Family: Husband, Thomas Cooper Fun Fact: Fuller Cooper says she and her husband, an Army reservist, had a hard time setting a date for their wedding. They ended up tying the knot in the midst of the 2008 legislative session when the Racial Justice Act passed. Cooper says she surprised her colleagues by showing up at the legislature the day after her wedding to check in on the bill’s progress, and the couple postponed their honeymoon until the next year.

— Charmaine Fuller Cooper has spent the last two years immersed in the stories of people who were robbed of their ability to bear children by the state of North Carolina.

Some call her office after having long wondered about an unexplained scar, while others, perhaps sterilized in the delivery room after giving birth, pieced together their past after seeing news reports about the state’s eugenics program.

As director of the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, Fuller Cooper helps callers find out if they were indeed targeted by the N.C. Eugenics Board, an agency that for more than 40 years sought to improve the state’s gene pool by sterilizing its least desirable citizens.

Fuller Cooper’s job also has included pushing for a measure that would compensate these victims for their pain – an effort that saw a huge setback earlier this year, when the state Senate refused to fund it. The same budget left her as the sole employee of her agency, whose future is now uncertain.

But the 32-year old activist, whose accomplishments to date include playing a key role in the passage of the Racial Justice Act and working to halt an execution, is not deterred. She resumed researching sterilization cases earlier this month after the work was briefly suspended.

“We are still trying to find justice for the victims,” says Fuller Cooper, “and at a bare minimum, that means letting people know whether they are victims or not.”

Those who have witnessed her work with victims say Fuller Cooper had an unusual ability to assist them, keeping their privacy in mind while also representing their interests to lawmakers and the public.

“Charmaine has been an outstanding leader in championing the interests and needs of the victims of the program that North Carolina administered for so many years,” says Moses Carey, secretary of the N.C. Department of Administration, which oversees the foundation’s work. “Her rigor and compassion are recognized throughout the state.”

Early activism

Fuller Cooper grew up in the small town of Henderson. Her father was one of the first black truck drivers for the Rose’s chain of discount stores, and her mother worked at a facility for the mentally disabled.

There was no single moment that fueled her activist impulses, she says. But she soaked up the ethos of helping others in a community where people without much were willing to bring a sick neighbor a meal or come together after a storm to repair homes.

“I wasn’t organizing rallies for my fellow kindergartners,” she says. “It was just me and my family members and everybody in the community working together and working for a better life.”

Her parents’ long hours at work left plenty of chores for Fuller Cooper and her brother, though she was also an excellent student who served as senior class president and drum major of the high school band.

“I always said I was so smart in school because I would make up extra homework so I could get out of my chores,” she says.

She went to N.C. Central University on scholarship with plans to go on to law school, and quickly became immersed in a number of projects – voter registration drives, student government, counseling rape victims.

But the one that sticks out most in her mind was the case of Robert Bacon Jr., who was set to be executed when she ran across a summary of his case. Activists, lawmakers and others argued the case was fraught with bias. She did, too.

Fuller Cooper organized a letter-writing campaignand hand delivered the letters to the governor’s mansion. Bacon’s execution was stayed, and he was allowed to serve out his life in prison.

Fuller Cooper isn’t sure what role the letters played in Bacon’s clemency, but the experience propelled her to choose activism over law school.

She got involved in fighting the death penalty through the Carolina Justice Policy Center, which was pushing for a moratorium on the death penalty.

But Fuller Cooper, who also had spent time as a legislative aide, saw that the moratorium would not pass. Instead, she pushed for a more measured approach of attacking flaws rather than the entire system.

The center developed a few bills, among them the Racial Justice Act, which would allow death-row inmates to serve a life term if they could show racial bias had been a factor in their case.

She was still in her 20s, but Fuller Cooper poured herself into the job of pushing her bills with legislators and the public. The first time the Racial Justice Act failed, she says she dissolved into tears in a legislative office. The measure passed in 2008 and, this year, was the subject of much legislative jockeying.

Money for victims?

Fuller Cooper had first heard of the eugenics program in the early 2000s, when few were aware of it. The program ran from 1929 to 1974, and the number of men and women sterilized is estimated at more than 7,000, at least 1,200 of whom are thought to still be living.

Reasons for forced sterilization included being mentally diseased, sexually promiscuous, “feeble-minded,” or, in some cases, poor. Many victims were targeted when they passed through jails, mental hospitals or orphanages.

In 2010, Gov. Bev Perdue created the foundation in an effort to find and verify victims who may then receive compensation. Fuller Cooper wasn’t all that interested in being a state employee, but she says, she signed on as director because she wanted to make sure the job was done well.

Her role there was described in the New York Times as “part counselor, part detective and part politician.” While she has helped find victims and verify their stories, she also has tried to get them to talk about their ordeals in order to build the case for compensation.

Perdue included $50,000 per victim in her proposed budget this year, but Senate Republicans pulled it from the budget; proponents, including Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, vow to try again next year.

In the meantime, Fuller Cooper combs through confidential records that brim with painful facts. She has found victims who were sterilized when they were as young as 5 years old, and cases where entire families were targeted, their offspring deemed a detriment to the community.

She agonizes over sending victims files that sometimes include the names of teachers or other community members who recommended the action.

But Fuller Cooper says she has been impressed with the victims’ courage as they work through their past pain and look for future compensation.

“These victims have gone through unimaginable torment,” she says. “They will never receive full vindication, but the payments would show symbolically that the state is deeply apologetic.

“For now, though, we don’t want to give anyone false hope.”

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