Two state lawmakers are backing restitution payments for victims of North Carolina's eugenics program.
The state eugenics program operated from 1929 through 1974, sterilizing an estimated 7,600 people. When the program started, it was mainly aimed at people in state mental hospitals and other institutions. But it spread out into communities, ramping up in NC after World War II, when most other states' eugenics programs were winding down.
Most of the victims were low-income and/or minority women who were forcibly sterilized because they got pregnant out of wedlock, were unemployed, were alcoholic or had married one, had a learning or other disability, or suffered from a treatable mental illness.
Monday’s preliminary report by the Governor’s Eugenics Compensation Task Force recommends that surviving victims of the program be offered free mental health care and a lump-sum payment in restitution for the damages they suffered at the state’s hands.
The panel did not recommend an amount for the payment. That’s expected to be in the final report, due early next year.
Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, says the compensation issue has been “a ten-year ordeal, but we’re getting closer.”
Womble sat on a committee in 2008 that recommended a $20,000 payment to living survivors of the program. He says he tried for $50,000, but the committee balked at the higher number.
“Keep in mind that there is no real figure that you can give these people back their dignity, restore their wholeness, restore what the state took away from them,” Womble said.
But the recommendation went nowhere. “That’s when we had money,” Womble said, “and we still didn’t do anything.”
Womble: "Step up"
Estimates of the number of surviving sterilization victims in NC range from 1,500 to 3,000.
At $20,000 each, the cost to the state would be between $30 million and $60 million dollars. At $50,000 each, the payments would cost between $75 million and $150 million.
If the state decides to compensate the estates of deceased victims as well as survivors, a $20,000 payment would cost the state about $152 million, while a $50,000 payment would cost about $380 million.
Womble says the state should compensate all of them. “You stepped up to the plate and did it to them. Step up and pay for it,” he said. “In state budgets of $19, $20 billion, that’s a drop in the bucket.”
Womble filed a bill this year to offer victims $20,000 compensation payments. But H70 never made it out of the House Health committee. “We’ll make a convenient excuse now – we have a budget shortfall, we can’t afford to,” he said. “But even though we are in a financial crisis, there’s a way. There’s always a way.”
Dollar: "Very difficult"
The chair of that committee, Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, was a co-sponsor on Womble’s bill. He’s firmly in support of lump-sum payments to survivors, he said. But it probably won’t happen for a year or two.
“The problem that we’ve got looking into the next budget year is, where do you find the funds?” Dollar said. “We should have found them a long time ago.”
For several years in the past decade, Dollar said, the state budget ran a surplus. “There were additional funds available. But the Democrats never made it a priority, which I think is very unfortunate. The governor never made it a priority when she was lieutenant governor.”
“I think it’s going to be very difficult to find the funds in the next fiscal year. But certainly, I would hope that once the economy starts to turn around and revenues start to recover, we need to look at this situation and make some financial restitution to the victims who are still alive.”
But Dollar is less certain about compensating the families of deceased victims. “That’s a more difficult question. The first priority has to be to those individuals that are still living.”
“Nothing can make up to the victim for what happened,” said Dollar. “But I think the compensation will be most meaningful and most needed by those individuals who are still alive - and from a budgeting standpoint, that’s where we should focus first and foremost.”
The final report from the Governor’s Task Force is due February 1st. They’re expected to issue recommendations on how much the payments should be and who should be entitled to receive them. They’re also weighing proposals to make the payments tax-exempt and to offer free health care for survivors for issues related to their state sterilizations.