A task force appointed by North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue has issued its preliminary report about how to compensate victims of a statewide program of sterilizing citizens who were deemed unfit to reproduce.

A task force appointed by North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue has issued its preliminary report about how to compensate victims of a statewide program of sterilizing citizens who were deemed unfit to reproduce.

Questions remain about how victims should be notified and how much they should be paid, though the task force, the report reveals, brainstormed about providing between $20,000 and $50,000 to each of the living victims.

In a cover letter accompanying the report released Aug. 1, the five-member task force asserted that “the state of North Carolina must move beyond just an apology” to the victims of the program, which was overseen by the official N.C. Eugenics Board in Raleigh from the 1930s through 1974. In 2002, then-Gov. Mike Easley apologized to the victims and their families, calling the period a “sad and regrettable chapter of the state’s history.”

Some 7,600 people, the vast majority of them poor women, were sterilized during the height of the program, and close to 3,000 (though probably fewer) might still be alive. While sterilizations were relatively rare in most of Western North Carolina, Buncombe ranked fifth among the state’s 100 counties in employing the procedure the most. Read Carolina Public Press’ breakdown of the number of sterilizations in WNC counties here.

The preliminary report treads into tricky territory. North Carolina is the first state to seriously delve into the matter of compensating sterilization victims, and it does so during a period of a state-budget austerity. Here’s a summary of the task force’s four main recommendations:

Compensation to surviving victims

While an analysis done last year suggested that more that 2,900 victims of the eugenics program might still be alive, more recent research reviewed by the task force indicates “a more realistic estimate…is probably between 1,500 to 2,000,” the report said.

The task force recommended that all surviving, verified victims be offered a lump-sum, one-time financial compensation and that the payment be exempt from state income taxation.

As for exactly how much victims should be paid by the state, the task force said that it’s reserving its judgment until its final report, which is due Feb. 1, 2012. The preliminary report emphasized that “no amount of money will ever remove the harm, embarrassment and injustice carried out against North Carolina sterilization victims.”

In its efforts to come up with a recommended figure for the payments, the task force “has brainstormed about providing between $20,000 and $50,000 each to verified living victims,” the report said.

Whatever a prospective payment plan amounts to — and noting that the state legislature would have to approve it — the task force stressed the importance of quick action on this recommendation. The “prolonged discussion of (awarding) damages, which has gone on now for almost 10 years, has given victims false hope and prolonged their suffering,” the report noted.

“We know that in a period of tight budgets compensation may not be popular among your constituents,” the task force wrote in its cover letter to Perdue. “For many citizens, it may be hard to justify spending millions when the state is cutting back on other essential services. But the fact is, there will never be a good time to redress these wrongs and the victims have already waited too long.”

Support services for victims

The task force also recommended that victims receive some measure of state-supported mental and physical health care, should they choose it. It also noted that several victims — some of whom provided testimony to the task force at hearings this summer — requested that a “peer-to-peer support group” be formed as part of the process.

Funds for traveling exhibit on eugenics in N.C.

In 2008, the state’s Department of Cultural Resources and Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities collaborated to create a historical exhibit on the eugenics program. It was displayed in a few locations but is mothballed now. “The exhibit’s travel was limited due to lack of funding,” the report noted.

The task force recommended that the exhibit be refurbished, recirculated and supplemented with “more cost-effective mediums such as an online exhibit, sponsored exhibitions, establishment of a permanent home for certain weeks each year and other options to be explored.”

North Carolina “has an obligation to make sure such violations of basic human rights are never repeated,” the task force wrote in its letter to Perdue. “We believe that education will serve as a deterrent.”

Continuing and expanding appropriations for victims’ foundation

The task force charged with making these recommendations works closely with the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, a state office in the Department of Administration also created by the governor. At present, its funding is slated to expire on June 30, 2012.

The report stressed the “need to have a supportive and efficient administrative structure for victims to receive potential damages in the future while continuing to measure and incoming victim records requests.” The foundation is currently the state’s point of contact for victims who want to register for potential benefits. It has one full-time and one half-time staffer.

If compensation funds do become available, the report said, the state will need to do “some form of targeted outreach to inform the victims.” At meetings held this summer, the task force concluded that, due to medical privacy concerns, contacting individual victims about sterilizations is probably not a legal option.

In lieu of alerting victims directly, so far the victims’ foundation said it has conducted a small-scale public outreach campaign, disseminating 3,000 copies of a poster to county health departments and social-service providers. The poster describes the eugenics program and asks, “Could you be a sterilization victim?” Potential victims are urged to call the foundation’s hotline at (877) 550-6013. Click here to download a PDF of the sterilization flyer.

In Buncombe County, where at least 139 state-approved sterilizations took place, Department of Health spokeswoman Gaylen Erlichman said that while the issue is on the department’s radar, it apparently hasn’t received the poster. She added that the department will be on the look-out for communications from the victims’ foundation about how to spread the word regarding any potential compensation package.

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Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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