What does North Carolina owe Elaine Riddick?
She was 14 and pregnant in rural Chowan County in 1968 when her grandmother, fearful of losing government benefits, signed papers that state officials thrust before her. Those officials were from the North Carolina Eugenics Board, which sterilized 7,600 people before disbanding in 1974.
Riddick has been the most public of North Carolina's eugenics victims, traveling to task force meetings, telling her story and urging justice from lawmakers and state officials. On Tuesday, North Carolina's Eugenics Compensation Task Force recommended the state pay $50,000 to Riddick and each living victim of the state's forced sterilization program. That number will be forwarded to Gov. Bev Perdue, who convened the task force and agreed Tuesday with its recommendation. N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis has said he would like the legislature to approve compensation of some amount during a short session in May.
We think $50,000 is an appropriate figure. Is it fair compensation? That's a question the task force - along with victims of forced sterilization - have struggled to answer. It's an impossible assignment, really, to put a tangible value on an unimaginable loss, and when task force members and others initially suggested $20,000 per victim, the victims scoffed. One group of victims and families countered with $1 million per eugenics case.
The task force - and soon lawmakers - have little precedent with which to work. North Carolina, which had one of the nation's largest eugenics programs, is the first state to seriously consider compensation. One possible blueprint comes from the U.S. government, which 30 years ago confronted the issue of compensating Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. In 1983, the Congressional Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians recommended that $20,000 be paid to surviving detainees. Five years later, President Ronald Reagan signed an act authorizing the payments.
In today's dollars, that 1988 figure amounts to almost $40,000. The eugenics task force decided on a somewhat higher and certainly reasonable number, and it recommended that only living descendants be paid. We encourage legislators to act quickly on the recommendations; too much time already has passed, leaving too many victims to die without any justice. That delay includes a decade of legislative foot-dragging following a 2002 Winston-Salem Journal report that exposed the ugly details of the eugenics program.
State officials estimate about 1,500 victims are still alive, although just 72 have been verified despite much publicity about the task force's efforts. An apology won't erase the pain victims have had to endure and relive, nor will a mere check. "You can't change anything," Elaine Riddick told the Associated Press Tuesday. We agree, but we recommend one more gesture, still insufficient but touted by Daren Bakst of the conservative John Locke Foundation: A lifetime break from paying state income taxes. It would be a yearly reminder, at least for some victims, that the state owes them regret, and more, for all that's been taken away.