Politics & Government

N.C. eugenics victims shut out of settlements by law’s wording

More than 7,000 people were involuntarily sterilized under North Carolina’s decades-long eugenics program. Now 10 words may keep many from being compensated for it.

The state has awarded $4.4 million to 220 victims. But scores more, possibly hundreds, may find themselves ineligible for payments because of the way a 2013 law was written.

Lawmakers created a $10 million fund for people sterilized “under the authority of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina.”

That apparently leaves out people sterilized by decisions made by local health or welfare officials in Mecklenburg and other counties, not by the state board.

“It’s a well-intended law that unfortunately does not seem to be written broadly enough to reach all of the people victimized by the state’s policy of sterilization of people deemed unfit to have children,” said Charlotte attorney Bob Bollinger, who represents several victims.

Eugenics programs spread across the country in the last century, becoming official policy in 32 states. North Carolina’s law, which began in 1933, was among the most aggressive.

The 1933 law targeted “mentally diseased, feeble-minded or epileptic” citizens. By the time the program ended in 1974, nearly 7,600 men, women and children had been sterilized. No county saw more than Mecklenburg, where at least 485 people were affected.

Last year, North Carolina became the first state to pass legislation to compensate victims. Officials estimated 1,500 to 2,000 were still alive.

By the time the application deadline ended this fall, 786 people had filed claims. The Industrial Commission, tasked with evaluating them, approved 220, though some are being appealed.

Chris Mears, a spokesman for the Department of Administration, said each successful claimant so far has been awarded $20,000. That could approach $50,000 after final appeals are heard, until the $10 million is gone.

‘Victimizing her again’

Victim advocates say many of the rejected claims came from people sterilized at the behest of people such as Wallace Kuralt, father of the late CBS broadcaster Charles Kuralt and Mecklenburg County’s welfare director from 1945 to 1972.

It was in 1972 that two Mecklenburg social workers urged the parents of 13-year-old Debra Blackmon to sterilize their daughter who, according to court and medical documents, they considered “severely retarded” with “psychic problems.”

The visitors told the parents that their daughter would have a relatively simple tubal ligation. She ended up with full hysterectomy, according to her niece, LaToya Adams.

When Blackmon filed a claim for compensation, it was rejected. Adams said while the family uncovered local documents about her aunt’s sterilization, there was nothing in the files of the Eugenics Board.

“She’s already been a victim once,” Adams said. “And by denying her, they’re victimizing her again.”

“There shouldn’t be this requirement that you have this piece of paper from the (state) Eugenics Board board if the sterilization was the result of a local government worker following that policy,” said Elizabeth Haddix, a lawyer with UNC’s Center for Civil Rights.

It’s unclear why the law was written the way it was.

“I don’t think there was any knowledge that county health departments were sterilizing people completely independent of the state,” said Gerry Cohen, a former legislative attorney and head bill drafter. “The discussions that I heard all revolved around the state program.”

Legislative fix

Some lawmakers hope to remedy what they consider an oversight in the coming session.

“The encouraging part of this is that it looks like any solution would not require an increase in the amount for the eugenics fund,” said Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat. “So it’s not going to cost the taxpayers an extra penny to solve this problem.”

Former Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington Republican who advocated for the compensation fund, said he’ll urge his former colleagues to make it apply to all victims.

“We do need to fix that little glitch,” he said. “I don’t think anybody was really aware that there were both county and state boards of eugenics.”

Other lawmakers are reluctant to change the law. Even those who support compensation say they don’t want to affect the settlements of those who have qualified.

But compensation for eugenics victims is an idea that appeals across party lines.

“I think that people involuntarily sterilized by their government should be compensated,” said Rep. Paul Stam of Wake County, a longtime advocate of compensation.

Republicans like to point out that it was their party that made compensation a reality.

“I do think it’s ironic that it was Republicans who dealt with this issue,” Goolsby said. “Democrats had their chance and most of these people went to their graves without being offered any compensation for what they went through.”