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End closer for eugenics chapter

Today, North Carolina moves closer to shutting the door on one of the state’s more shameful episodes. June 30 is the deadline for victims of the state’s long-running eugenics program to file for compensation from a fund N.C. lawmakers approved in 2013.

As of last week, 630 sterilization victims or their families had filed claims for compensation from the $10 million fund, according to the Office for Justice of Sterilization Victims. The office has forwarded at least 320 of those claims to the Industrial Commission to determine eligibility; the remaining claims have been logged in as valid pending further information from the victims or additional research by the office.

Sadly, North Carolina ran one of the most aggressive involuntary sterilization programs in the nation, lasting from 1929 through 1974. More than 7,600 men, woman and children who had been declared mentally or physically unfit to reproduce, often on flimsy or faulty evidence, were left barren. Toward its end, most of those targeted were black girls and women of modest means.

As shameful, state officials balked and dragged their feet for years trying to avoid making amends for this grievous wrong. As they did, many of the victims died.

When lawmakers finally agreed to compensation and a system to provide it, the program allowed only victims who were alive on June 30, 2013 or their families to collect. Advocates rightly point out that the cut-off unfairly leaves out people who had already been verified by the state as victims of the eugenics program but who had died before that date as lawmakers dawdled over how to do the compensation.

By January 2012, a governor’s task force had already recommended that each victim be awarded $50,000. The $10 million fund would compensate only 200 claims if each got $50,000. The fund is set up for each claimant, no matter the number, to get a share. The Industrial Commission, whose job it is to sort through the claims and award compensation, must ensure that all legitimate claims are honored and not throw out claims if the number of claimants exceeds expectations.

Mecklenburg County could have the lion’s share of claims. This county recorded more than 400 sterilizations – more than any other county in the state by a large margin.

The callousness of the eugenics program is astonishing to read about. Juxtaposed against the heart-wrenching stories that living victims told a state compensation task force in 2012 they are even more so. Tearful victims included women who were as young as 13 when the procedure was done. Some victims were described as being mentally deficient but others were just said to be of bad moral character or exhibiting “provocative behavior.” State officials would carry out the procedure sometimes on the basis of a single comment or complaint about the victim.

North Carolina became the first state in the country to approve compensation for sterilization victims in 2013. Lawmakers deserve credit for doing so. Now, they need to make sure that all who are entitled to compensation get to file for it – and finally get it.

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