An amendment to the House budget would speed compensation to eugenics victims. Nonetheless, some victims have been left out in the cold.
By Rose Hoban
It was hours into the budget debate for the North Carolina House of Representatives and already dozens of amendments had been passed when Rep. Paul Stam (R-Apex) stood up to offer another.
He was looking to help victims of the state’s now defunct eugenics program.
“Two years ago, we appropriated $10 million for those victims of that practice. They were to get half the money this last October and then the final amount, presumably, this coming October,” Stam said.
But appeals have slowed the process.
Stam offered a measure intended to get victims more money sooner. Many of the victims of North Carolina’s eugenics program had surgeries decades ago, before the program ended in 1977.
“They’re getting old; they may die before they get it,” he said.
Stam’s colleagues on the other side of the aisle quickly embraced what he was doing.
In one of the evening’s moments of bipartisanship, the amendment passed, 114-0.
Divvying up the dollars
Advocates of compensating the victims were pleased with the amendment.
Charmaine Fuller Cooper, former executive director of the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, wrote in an email that many of the remaining victims of North Carolina’s eugenics program are ailing.
“Many are dealing with major health issues, difficulty accessing affordable housing, transportation issues, access to healthy meal delivery and/or limited incomes,” she wrote. “These issues faced by many as they age are compounded by the fact that the majority of these victims have no living children or family members to care for them as they age.”
The budget bill that created the compensation program for eugenics victims stipulated that before victims could get their total payout, the state would take applications for compensation, make an initial payout, resolve all of the cases and then split what remained among all of the victims.
But the second and third payouts would only materialize once all of the outstanding cases were adjudicated. And that’s taking time.
Kevin Begos, one of the reporters at the Winston-Salem Journal whose writing helped bring attention to the eugenics program, wrote that speeding up the payments “makes moral and practical sense.”
“None of them should die waiting for a check to arrive from the state that sterilized them,” Begos wrote in response to an email query.
But it turns out not every advocate for the eugenics victims is pleased with the amendment because there are some people who continue to be left out.
According to the North Carolina Department of Administration, which is processing claims from people who were sterilized, close to 800 claims were filed but only 220 were found to be “qualified” to receive compensation from the fund.
At least 50 of those people denied are appealing their claims denials.
“It seems that a number of people were sterilized at the behest of local officials under the 1933 Eugenics Board act,” said Bob Bollinger, a Charlotte attorney who is representing several sterilization victims on a pro bono basis.
Bollinger explained that many eugenics victims’ claims were verified by records at the Eugenics Board of North Carolina offices in Raleigh. Without the paperwork, the claims cannot be verified.
“The paperwork has been lost or destroyed, or local officials did not provide those sterilization victims with the due process required by the 1933 act [and] therefore that paperwork never existed,” he said.
Advocates have expressed frustration at the Catch-22 that victims, whose bodies have been altered, cannot prove they were sterilized because they lack paperwork.
Bollinger thinks part of the problem is that the Department of Administration is taking too narrow a view of the statute and should view county victims as part of the class of people entitled to compensation.
He said he doesn’t fault the legislature: “They did do a good thing in setting up this compensation, but they didn’t realize there would be all those people who didn’t have a piece of paper.”
Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Charlotte) wanted to rectify that problem.
Jackson, a freshman senator, filed a bill that would make people sterilized under county programs eligible for eugenics compensation.
“We knew it was going to be an uphill chance from the beginning,” he said. “Politically, it was implausible to increase the $10 million appropriation, so we made a decision that the lesser of two evils would be to treat fairly all who had been sterilized even if that meant getting a smaller piece of the pie.”
Jackson’s bill never made it out of committee.
Wrapping up claims
Stam said he’s aware of the problem with people sterilized by county officials. He said many of those sterilizations were done in Charlotte.
“If there are counties that believe they should make some recompense, mostly Mecklenburg, I wouldn’t have any objection at all,” he said.
But he said he’s more interested in getting what’s left to confirmed victims who are aging.
“We can’t pay the final payment until all the appeals are exhausted,” he said. “Even if all the appeals succeeded, the folks who’ve already qualified and are determined to be eligible without controversy would have to wait two or three years.”
About $4.4 million of the $10 million has been paid out. If his amendment becomes part of the budget, another $3 million or thereabouts would be paid out, leaving only $2.5 million for the remaining petitioners.
Bollinger said he’s going to continue fighting for county victims who had “rogue sterilizations” to get something.
“Now they’re wronged twice: once by being sterilized and a second time by not having due process done,” he said.
“We’ll keep appealing until we get the decision we want,” Bollinger said.