Panel calls for compensating N.C. eugenics victims
Easley's commission issues recommendations to identify, help those who were sterilized
By Dana Damico
After becoming the first state to create a commission to review its role in a statewide eugenic sterilization program, North Carolina could soon take another dramatic step to compensate unwilling victims of the program.
A national media campaign to identify and compensate victims could start in August under recommendations tentatively endorsed yesterday by the Eugenics Study Committee.
Gov. Mike Easley appointed the group to scrutinize the Eugenics Board of North Carolina, which authorized more than 7,600 sterilizations from 1929 until 1974, and to consider how to redress those people who were forcibly sterilized.
The study committee plans to submit its report to Easley in coming weeks.
The report calls for the creation of a special health fund to provide medical care for victims, and free education benefits at the state's universities and community colleges for victims and, potentially, their families.
It also backs the concept of reparations supported by Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, a leading critic of the state's role in the eugenics movement.
"Although the committee strongly believes that survivors also deserve some form of financial compensation for what we believe is a violation of human rights, we recommend the creation of a legislative study commission to address this issue," the report reads.
A bill to create such a commission is pending in the General Assembly.
The committee has met four times since February. In March, it heard heart-rending testimony from two women who were sterilized against their will.
One was Nial Cox Ramirez, who was sterilized in 1965 when she was 18. Ramirez, who has one child, said that her social worker threatened to drop her family from welfare if she didn't undergo the operation.
Ramirez's story is featured in the current edition of Newsweek magazine.
Nationwide, about 65,000 people were sterilized as part of the eugenics movement. Supporters of eugenics wanted to eliminate such social ills as out-of-wedlock births, genetic defects and mental illness thought to be hereditary.
North Carolina's response to the eugenics program has drawn national and international attention. Easley formally apologized for the program in December after a series of stories was published in the Winston-Salem Journal. Since then, the General Assembly voted to strike a law that allowed for the involuntary sterilization of the mentally ill - a final legal vestige of the eugenics program.
The committee report calls North Carolina's sterilization program a "shameful blot" on state history that should never be repeated.
If Easley accepts the recommendations, efforts to find people sterilized against their wishes could start in July with a statewide news release. Privacy laws bar state officials from identifying victims from the more than 150,000 pages of documents stored at the state archives on the program. Those records are locked up, officials said.
Budget constraints also prevent a costly publicity campaign and committee members suggest the use of "free media."
To find victims, it recommends posting information in church bulletins, N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles offices, health departments, libraries and schools, as well as on billboards or even city buses. It recommends enlisting help from hospitals and doctors, faith-based groups and churches, civic organizations and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"This is going to be a national thing," Womble said. "Hopefully, those who want to, will find it comfortable enough to come forward." Committee members said that they have no idea how many people that could be. Many people may have died or moved across the country. Some may not want to revisit painful memories of the irreversible operation. Others may be skeptical of getting redress from a state that violated them.
"My hope is that we'll have a groundswell," said Carmen Hooker Odom, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and the head of the study committee. "We're hoping to get folks to come forward so we can do the right thing, finally."
According to news reports, state officials already have received requests from people who say they were forcibly sterilized. Womble says he has a list of 12 people. Another 12 have called a state hot line.
Cathy Morris, the state archivist, said that 10 people have contacted her office, including Ramirez and another victim, Elaine Riddick Jessie.
Jessie, who joined Ramirez in testifying before the committee, was 14 when she was sterilized in 1968 after a man in his 20s impregnated her - statutory rape by law.
Of the other eight, only one had records on file at the archives. "Which is an interesting commentary," Morris said.
Under the committee's draft plan, people who believe that they were sterilized would request their records from the state archives. They would be eligible for benefits if a three- or five-person panel certified their claim.
The committee agreed to start work immediately on a survivors' group. Members could look for emotional support from one another and aid other victims through the potentially intimidating process, the committee said.
"They're very upset," said Debbie Crane, a health and human services spokeswoman who has talked to victims. "It is tough trying to talk about it."
Womble said that it was a monumental decision for Ramirez and Jessie to share their stories. Officials need to recognize that others may be equally fearful. "We must be almost like a confidante to them," he said. "Whatever it takes to hold their hands.
"They've been carrying this burden."
Note: An article on this subject was featured in the January, 2008 edition of Black Enterprise magazine.