A portion of the summary file for a 18-year-old girl from Rutherford County who was sterilized during the state's eugenics program. Click to view full-size image.
WNC CONFIDENTIAL is a Carolina Public Press feature about official secrets and public disclosures — all from, about or relating to the mountain region. It’s your key to resources, recent revelations and hard-to-find records.

Of 551 victims from WNC, only two have been officially verified. Meanwhile, old files detail cases still lost in a void.

As North Carolina moves closer to a potential compensation package for victims of the state’s sterilization program, the quest to identify surviving victims is quickening. But according to a recent tally announced by Gov. Bev Perdue, 111 victims have been officially verified by the state so far, leaving the vast majority unaccounted for.

Under the program, administered by the N.C. Eugenics Board from the 1930s to the early 1970s, some 7,600 people were sterilized for being “feebleminded” or having epilepsy or other purported shortcomings. Today, some 1,500 to 2,000 are estimated to still be alive.

In the state’s 17 westernmost counties, 551 individuals were sterilized during the peak years of the program. According to numbers released by the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation on March 19 [PDF], only two from the area have been placed on the state’s roll of certified victims.

One was from Swain County, where 17 sterilizations took place, and one was from Transylvania, where 46 did.

In Buncombe County, where 139 sterilizations took place — the most by far in the mountain region and the fifth most among the state’s 100 counties — zero victims have been accounted for.

Victims must contact state office to be verified, become eligible for potential compensation

Citing medical privacy laws, state officials argue that they cannot contact victims, the names of which are in files archived at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. However, the sterilization victims’ foundation is encouraging anyone who believes they are a victim to contact the foundation’s toll-free hotline and begin the verification process, which is confidential.

The hotline number is (877) 550-6013. The foundation reports that it has received more than 1,300 phone inquiries in the first three months of this year.

Once a victim is verified by the foundation, they might become eligible for restitution funds, if such funds are approved by the General Assembly. A task force appointed by Perdue has recommended that each surviving victim receive $50,000 in compensation, as well as mental and physical health services. Perdue recently announced that she will put the compensation plan in her next state budget request.

Eugenics files detail unresolved cases

Throughout its tenure, the N.C. Eugenics Board kept detailed records of the sterilizations it approved. Many of those records have survived in state archives, and are available for inspection and copying by the public, once the victims’ names and some other personal information is redacted.

The victims’ foundation recently released a sampling of those case files, which Carolina Public Press obtained. The files include details on several sterilizations that occurred in this area but are among the many that have not been matched with a verified surviving victim.

And while the victims’ names are blacked out, the records reveal clues about the context and decision-making that led local and state health officials to authorize sterilizations in such cases.

At a January 1969 meeting, for example, the Eugenics Board approved 13 sterilizations, two of which were in WNC. One involved a pregnant Haywood County woman who had already had five children. Both she “and her husband are mentally retarded,” a board summary said [PDF], adding that her I.Q. was 75 and that she’d been diagnosed as “feebleminded.”

The husband had just been released from a mental institution after serving time in prison, and most of the couple’s children were in foster care. One of their children had died, “and authorities believe the child’s death was attributed to deliberate exposure,” the summary said. Another child was “being treated at Duke Hospital for an esophageal defect attributed to ingestion of lye or caustics at an early age which is believed to probably have come from deliberate action on the part of the parents.”

Both the woman and her husband refused to sign forms consenting to her being sterilized. However, on the recommendation of Haywood County health officials, the Eugenics Board directed that she be sterilized nonetheless.

At the same meeting, the board approved the sterilization of an 18-year-old resident of Forest City in Rutherford County. The woman, also diagnosed as “feebleminded,” had the mental functioning of a 3-year-old, the summary said [PDF]. What’s more, her mother was ill and her father, a day laborer, was often absent, “mak[ing] constant supervision impossible.”

“She can only follow a simple single order and cannot be trusted to use the stove or hot water,” the summary said. “The community accepted [her] fairly well until she began to take off her clothes in public,” and her parents had grown fearful that she would be “taken advantage of by some unscrupulous male.”

The woman’s father had signed a consent form, the board noted.

In an earlier case, two Buncombe County welfare officials requested “emergency action” in an Oct. 12, 1962, letter to the Eugenics Board. A 20-year-old single woman with an I.Q. of 57 had become pregnant, they wrote, and a doctor at Memorial Mission Hospital in Asheville had recommended that she be sterilized after her child was delivered. A portion of the document can be viewed below.

After numerous evaluations, “combined opinions are that this girl seeks the love and companionship of others as a child [would] rather than showing any inclinations of promiscuous activities,” the officials wrote. “However, because of her loving nature and since her parents are unable to stay with her every minute, we agree that a sterilization operation should be performed to prevent any further pregnancies.”

The Eugenics Board approved the operation, and the final document in the case file (see file, below) includes a signed statement from a surgeon noting that the sterilization took place on Nov. 3, 1962.

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

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