H-116 Historical Marker, US 401 (McDowell Street) in Raleigh, commemorating North Carolina Eugenics Board. Courtesy NC Highway Historical Marker Program, wikimedia creative commons

By Hyun Namkoong

As the June 30 deadline to file a claim in the state’s eugenics compensation program draws near for victims of North Carolina’s dark history of forced sterilizations, advocates hope for an extension of the deadline so people have more time to file claims.

In what has been described as one of the most aggressive and enduring sterilization programs in the country, an estimated 7,600 people were sterilized by force or uninformed consent under the authority of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina program from 1929 to 1974.

Last year, North Carolina became the first state in the nation to offer compensation for victims of involuntary sterilization.

old eugenics posters reading: "Some people are born to be a burden on others"
U.S. eugenics advocacy poster from the Philadelphia Sesqui-Centennial Exhibition, 1926 Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In an effort to rectify the state’s shameful history of forcibly sterilizing people, Gov. Pat McCrory allocated $10 million last year in the state budget for victims, following the recommendations of a task force created in 2011 by then-Gov. Bev Perdue.

“It was a bipartisan effort to get the legislation passed, and it’s only the right thing to do,” said William Cox, a member of the Break the Silence Task Force, an ad-hoc group of people committed to raising awareness on sterilization.

Until 2003, involuntary sterilization was legally permitted in North Carolina.

History of sterilization

The Eugenics Board of North Carolina was established on the belief that the selective breeding of humans, known as eugenics, would solve social problems such as poverty. The state permitted thousands of people to be sterilized, and was the only state to give social workers authority to recommend sterilizations of people who were deemed “unfit” to have children.

Minutes from a 1950 eugenics board meeting reveal that victims were commonly diagnosed with “feeble-mindedness.”  Women who experienced sexual abuse were also recommended for sterilization.

Involuntary sterilizations were also commonly performed on inmates. And people with developmental disabilities were rarely consulted on the life-changing operation due to their “incompetence.”

Little outreach to victims

The state Department of Administration – which is responsible for outreach, receiving claims and matching those claims to old records from the former eugenics board – has received 442 claims since the creation of the fund.

Because involuntary sterilizations began 85 years ago, many victims have passed away. A 2010 estimate from the State Center for Health Statistics projected that 2,944 victims are still living.

Advocates for eugenics compensation believe that outreach efforts haven’t gone far enough in attempting to notify aging victims – many of whom likely don’t have access to the Internet – that the eugenics compensation fund exists.

“The biggest impediment is that the legislation didn’t account for money to get the word out, the outreach aspect,” Cox said. “That was dropped from the bill – the PR aspect.”

“It seems as if the state is going to be quite satisfied with 200 approved claims,” said Elizabeth Haddix, senior staff attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which is organizing free legal clinics all around the state to offer assistance to victims “There really hasn’t been any coordinated outreach since 2012.”

“We think there is likelihood that there are victims who don’t even know about the compensation program or never even heard of what is going on,” said Chris Mears, public Information officer for the Department of Administration’s Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims.

Extend the deadline?

Haddix said that the legal documents required to file a claim are “very burdensome,” particularly for family members who want to file on behalf of deceased victims, further curtailing the number of claims.

Eugenics Protest circa 1971 originally published by Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF)
Eugenics protest, circa 1971, originally published by the Southern Conference Educational Fund. Image courtesy Southern Studies Institute, Wikimedia Commons

“For victims who died, it’s required for that person’s heir to have the court estate document, but that doesn’t fit the reality of the people,” Haddix said. “They died without wills or an estate.”

The compensation fund doesn’t allow heirs to file a claim on behalf of victims who died before June 30, 2013. But Haddix argues that this isn’t fair for people who have been hearing about the possibility of compensation since 2011.

The Center for Civil Rights has asked the state to change the threshold to include people whose family members died earlier, and has also asked the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus to draft a bill that would extend the deadline so more people can file claims.

But state House Speaker Thom Tillis, a supporter of the compensation program, opposes an extension of the deadline.

“Extending the deadline would only work to delay the compensation the victims are entitled to,” Anna Roberts, Tillis’ press secretary, wrote in an email. “[T]he goal is to get them their money as soon as possible.”

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Hyun graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings Global School of Public Health in the health behavior department and she worked as the NC Health News intern from Jan-Aug 2014.

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