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Compensating N.C. eugenics victims

EUGENICS_RITA_THOMPSON_SWORDS_01
John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
Rita Thompson Swords, 73, of Matthews was one of the state’s sterilization victims.

The state’s rejection of the majority of claims for compensation for its decades-long eugenics program is raising reasonable concerns about the claims process and its fairness. Of the 730 claims received by the June 30 deadline to the Office of Justice for Sterilization, 565 were pre-screened for the necessary information, including matching victims with state Eugenics Board records, and sent to the Industrial Commission for an official determination of eligibility. By last week only about 180 were reported to have qualified to receive payments from the $10 million state fund.

That’s a paltry number, especially given the expansive nature of the N.C. eugenics program. The eugenics board is estimated to have forcibly sterilized more than 7,600 men, women and children between 1929 through 1974 in one of the most aggressive involuntary sterilization programs in the nation. The victims were declared mentally or physically unfit to reproduce often deemed on flimsy or faulty evidence.

Shamefully, state officials dragged their feet for years trying to avoid making amends. As they did, many of the victims died. When lawmakers finally agreed to compensation, 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 but who had died before that date as lawmakers dawdled over how to do the compensation.

Those victims probably account for some of the rejections, and lawmakers should revisit that cut-off and include victims the state had already identified and sent verification letters.

But advocates say some claims are being rejected because of rules that are difficult to meet. Some claimants will need letters of administration or other legal documents obtained during estate proceedings. But many of these victims died without assets and there were no estate proceedings. Getting an estate opened in North Carolina and obtaining the required documents is both time-consuming and costly.

North Carolina, having long resisted compensating victims and their families, now seems eager to close this chapter. The first checks to claimants are set to go out at the end of October.

But officials must take the time to do this right – especially since all verified claims are to equally share in the $10 million fund. Every claimant with a legitimate claim should be given the opportunity to get compensated. Those who are rejected should be given the time, and any documents the state might have, to appeal that rejection. Those appeals extend up to the state Court of Appeals, so resolutions could take months.

The state stepped up in agreeing to compensate victims. But justice will only be served if all who are entitled to that compensation get the chance to get it.

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