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NC panel recommends $50,000 in sterilization compensation

Posted January 10, 2012 4:01 a.m. EST
Updated January 10, 2012 6:56 p.m. EST

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— People sterilized against their will under a discredited North Carolina state program should each be paid $50,000, a task force voted Tuesday, marking the first time a state has moved to compensate victims of a once-common public health practice called eugenics.

The Eugenics Compensation Task Force recommended that the money go to verified, living victims, including those who are alive now but may die before the lawmakers approve any compensation. The legislature must still approve any payments.

"This critical issue is of great concern and interest to me, and this is a positive step toward a common goal," House Speaker Thom Tillis, who has supported compensating sterilization victims, said in a statement. "I look forward to reviewing the recommendations in detail and discussing the matter with members of the General Assembly, non-partisan fiscal staff and other stakeholders as we move forward."

A task force report last year said 1,500 to 2,000 of those victims were still alive, and the state has verified 72 victims. If the estimate is correct, the payments could total around $100 million. Survivors will have three years to apply for payments from the time a measure approving them goes into effect.

"No amount of money can adequately compensate victims for what they endured, and we are not trying to value life," said Laura Gerald, chairwoman of the task force. "The reason for compensation is, one, to provide meaningful assistance to survivors and, two, to put a package together for the state that would say to people that North Carolina pays for its mistakes and to let us move forward as a state."

State officials sterilized around 7,600 people between 1929 and 1974. Roughly 85 percent of those sterilized were women or girls, and most were poor or black. The state ended the program in 1977.

In 2002, then-Gov. Mike Easley formally apologized for the program.

Gov. Beverly Perdue echoed Gerald's sentiments, saying she was in favor of the recommendations and would pass them along to lawmakers.

"While no amount of money will ever make up for the fact that government officials deprived North Carolinians, mostly women, of the possibility of having children – and officials did so, in most cases, without the victims’ consent or against their will – we must do something," Perdue said in a statement. "I support the task force’s compensation proposal. I also agree that we should establish a permanent exhibit so that this shameful period is never forgotten.”

The panel had discussed amounts between $20,000 and $50,000 per person, and some victims and their family members had reacted angrily to the proposals because they felt the amounts were too low. But on Tuesday, some said they were simply looking forward to the issue being resolved.

"I just want it to be over," said 57-year-old Elaine Riddick, who was sterilized when she was 14 after she gave birth to a son who was the product of rape. "You can't change anything. You just let go and let God."

Riddick, a constant presence at the task force meetings, said she was surprised that the task force recommended $50,000 instead of $20,000.

The task force also recommended state-funded mental health services for living victims and a traveling museum exhibit to educate people about the eugenics program.

No payments were recommended for families of sterilization victims who have already died. Gerald said such payments likely wouldn't be financially feasible.