Rita Thompson Swords, 73, was sterilized by the state when she was a 21-year-old unwed mother. John D. Simmons/Charlotte Observer

This story originally appeared here and is published by Carolina Public Press through a content-sharing agreement with the Charlotte Observer

By Jim Morrill

Advocates for North Carolina’s eugenics victims are asking state lawmakers to close what they see as a loophole that may be making victims ineligible for compensation.

More than 7,000 people were involuntarily sterilized under North Carolina’s decadeslong eugenics program.

So far the state has awarded $4.4 million to 220 victims. But hundreds more could be ineligible because of the way a 2013 law was written.

Lawmakers created a $10 million fund for people sterilized “under the authority of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina.” That’s been interpreted to exclude people sterilized by local health or welfare officials, not by the state eugenics board.

But Elizabeth Haddix, senior staff attorney for the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights, which has represented victims, said the local officials “played a pivotal role” in implementing the state eugenics policy.

“There is no question that eugenics victims excluded from compensation … were sterilized by state actors against their will, and therefore are plainly part of the class that the (compensation) statute was designed to reach,” she wrote to N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.

Shelly Carver, a spokesman for Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said “it is too early to speculate on what might happen during the legislative process.” Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, said he is reviewing the proposal.

Any changes to the 2013 law could meet resistance.

Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican who co-chairs the Senate’s appropriations committee on Health and Human Services, said “the state’s done its part.”

MORE: Read Carolina Public Press’s special report on eugenics and WNC

“They should go to the county where they were sterilized, not the state,” he said of those victims. “The state’s done its part to right the wrongs that we did, but the county should be responsible for what it did.”

Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte said support for closing the loophole “ranges from zero to tepid.”

A Department of Administration spokesman said each successful claimant so far has been awarded $20,000. That could approach $50,000 after final appeals are heard, until the $10 million is gone.

North Carolina’s eugenics law, which began in 1933, was among the most aggressive of all the 32 states that had them. The 1933 law targeted “mentally diseased, feeble-minded or epileptic” citizens.

By the time the program ended in 1974, nearly 7,600 men, women and children had been sterilized. No county saw more than Mecklenburg, where at least 485 people were affected.

Last year, when North Carolina became the first state to pass legislation to compensate victims, officials estimated 1,500 to 2,000 were still alive.

By last fall’s application deadline, 786 people had filed claims. The Industrial Commission, tasked with evaluating them, approved 220, though some have been appealed.

Victim advocates say many of the rejected claims came from people sterilized at the behest of people such as Wallace Kuralt, father of the late CBS broadcaster Charles Kuralt and Mecklenburg County’s welfare director from 1945 to 1972.

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