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Payments for Victims of Eugenics Are Shelved

by Kim SeversonThe New York Times
June 20th, 2012

The Eugenics Board of North Carolina sterilized Charles Holt when he was a teenager.

North Carolina’s novel effort to compensate people who were sterilized under a widespread and decades-long eugenics program that stretched into the 1970s all but died in the State Senate on Wednesday.

Despite backing from Gov. Bev Perdue and the State House of Representatives, a compensation package that would have given victims up to $50,000 each was not included in the Senate’s budget.

“I think there’s a very strong message from the Senate they’re not prepared to take it up this year,” said Thom Tillis, a Republican and speaker of the House, who supported paying victims.

Lawmakers will vote on the final $20.2 billion budget later this week and then send it to the governor, but it is unlikely that any last-minute changes will include the eugenics bill.

Victims and supporters, who had hoped North Carolina would be the first of 32 states that practiced eugenics to pay victims, were angry.

“I am just overwhelmed that their mentality is still the same as the politicians who supported eugenics in the first place,” said Elaine Riddick, who was sterilized at 14 after having a baby fathered by a neighbor. “You have done messed up people for life, and this is what you do?”

The state said that Ms. Riddick was “feebleminded” and potentially promiscuous. So her grandmother, who was illiterate and who feared Ms. Riddick would be sent to an orphanage, signed the consent form with an X.

Ms. Riddick, who now lives in Atlanta, took a case against the state to the United States Supreme Court in the ‘70s, but it declined to hear her appeal. She is now working with a lawyer representing a group of victims from other states to consider a class-action suit.

Certainly, fiscal concerns were a factor in the Senate’s decision. If all of the 1,350 to 1,800 living victims came forward, the state could have been liable for about $90 million. But the actual cost was expected to be much less. So far, only 146 living victims have been verified, and an additional 200 requests were pending. The House bill included $11 million for the program.

Still, some senators argued that paying victims of what had been a legal program could lead to paying descendants of slaves or American Indians.

“If we do something like this, you open up the door to other things the state did in its history,” Senator Chris Carney, a Republican, told The Mooresville Tribune. “And some, I’m sure you’d agree, are worse than this.”

North Carolina began sterilizing men and women in 1929 after social workers, county health departments and eventually a state board deemed them too poor, mentally disabled or otherwise unfit to raise children. The 7,600 victims of the program, which was dissolved in 1977, were largely women and disproportionately members of minorities.

After years of pressure from victims, officials began offering public apologies. In 2010, Ms. Perdue, a Democrat, established an office to track living victims as a step toward compensating them.

Charmaine Fuller Cooper, executive director of the state’s Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, became part counselor, part detective and part politician. She would try to persuade people to share their medical and family histories so their cases could be verified by state archivists and lawmakers and the public might be moved by their stories.

On Wednesday, the state announced that it would begin to close the office and no longer handle new requests from victims. However, people who believe they or their family members were victims will be able to work with state archivists. 



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