Panel Recommends Paying Eugenics Victims $50,000

In North Carolina Tuesday, a state eugenics task force has recommended paying $50,000 to people the state sterilized against their will. It's not as much money as the victims had hoped, but it's one of the first times a state has offered any money.

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More than half of states had forced sterilization programs at one time, but few were as aggressive as North Carolina's. Some 7,600 men, women and children were sterilized by that state's eugenics board up to the mid 1970s. Sterilization was seen as a way to control welfare costs and improve the caliber of the population. Well, today, a task force in North Carolina took a step toward becoming the only state to offer compensation to eugenics victims.

From member station WFAE, Julie Rose has the story.

JULIE ROSE, BYLINE: For more than 25 years, Elaine Riddick has fought for money from the state of North Carolina. But when she learned she may receive $50,000, she just sounded tired.

ELAINE RIDDICK: I just want it to be over. I just want it to be over.

ROSE: Through tears, Riddick once again told of how she was sterilized at 14, just after giving birth to her only son. It was 1968 and the North Carolina Eugenics Board declared her unfit for parenthood. Why? Because she lived in poverty and had poor hygiene. Riddick didn't realize the delivery doctor had sterilized her until she was 19, newly married and eager to get pregnant again.

She was one of the first North Carolina eugenics victims to come forward. She sued for a million dollars and lost. Fifty thousand dollars is hardly enough, she says. But...

RIDDICK: You just have to accept it. And with the mental health benefits, I think I would be able to get the help that I need to get over this.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEEPING)

ROSE: Riddick and other victims say they suffered depression, alcoholism and suicidal thoughts as a result of sterilization. Psychological counseling is another recommendation from a task force created by the governor to look at compensating eugenics victims.

Janice Black was 14 when social workers labeled her feeble-minded and recommended sterilization. Today, Black is 59. She says $50,000 is chump change.

JANICE BLACK: That's how I feel, its chump change. Still, no amount of money is not going to give back what was already taken from you.

MEGHAN BROWN: Governor Perdue knows that monetary compensation will never be sufficient.

ROSE: Governor Bev Perdue sent staff member Meghan Brown to the final meeting of the Eugenics Task Force with that message. The committee of five volunteers spent months listening to victims and wrestling with how much to pay the more than 2,000 estimated to still be alive.

The recommendation of $50,000 is now in the hands of Governor Perdue and state lawmakers who continue to struggle with tight budgets. That political reality led the task force to not recommend compensation for the families of sterilization victims who have already died.

Which means Australia Clay and her sister would get nothing.

AUSTRALIA CLAY: We took care of our mother. Our mother came home - they sent us home what was left and we took care of her. And otherwise, my mother has been sterilized involuntarily for nothing.

ROSE: The Eugenics Task Force did not come to its recommendations easily. Chairwoman Laura Gerald says it was much harder than she anticipated, but compensating the victims is important.

LAURA GERALD: And sends a clear message that we in North Carolina are people who pay for our mistakes, and that we do not tolerate bureaucracies that trample on basic human rights.

ROSE: North Carolina was hardly alone. Almost three dozen states had eugenics sterilization laws. To date, only seven have formally apologized and none have paid any money to victims. If North Carolina lawmakers do as the task force suggests, their state will have gone further than any other to make amends.

For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Raleigh.

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