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Locating Sterilization Victims A Difficult Process

Numbers of sterilizations performed in area counties during the era of the NC Eugenics Board. Image courtesy of NC Sterilization

Numbers of sterilizations performed in area counties during the era of the NC Eugenics Board. Image courtesy of NC Sterilization Victims Foundation. Wednesday afternoon, WFAE will air a special report on North Carolina's sterilization program. More than 7,600 men, women and children as young as 10 were sterilized between 1929 and 1974, and there were more sterilizations in Mecklenburg County than any other. Reporter Julie Rose will examine why Mecklenburg County stands out in this chapter of North Carolina history. Julie joins Scott Graf now to discuss another aspect of this story - compensation for the victims. A state panel is now deciding how much money to give them. There are an estimated 3,000 victims still alive, but only about 100 have come forward. Most of them still need to be confirmed as being sterilized under the state Eugenics Program. Scott: Julie, do we know why more victims aren't coming forward? Julie: Well, Scott we do have some ideas. First of all there's a lot of shame associated with this. In a lot of cases, this is a family secret. Some of the victims have never told their families why they can't have children. Another reason is that people may not know that they were victims. There were many young teenagers in state-run schools in the 60s who were required to be sterilized before they could leave the institution. Some of those folks say they didn't know. They were 14. They were just told they had to have a procedure. A lot of times young women were told this was an appendectomy they were getting. And that also goes the same for girls who were on welfare who got pregnant, and the county welfare workers would convince the guardian of the girl to have her sterilized, and the girl maybe wasn't told what the procedure was or during childbirth the doctor sterilized her. So there's some not knowing. And the reason may be that people simply don't know that they need to come forward now and put their names on the list. They can do it privately. They can call the hotline (1-877-550-6013 or visit www.sterilizationvictims.nc.gov), but it's been decades. They've lived with it, they've tried to forget about it. In many cases, they've had really hard lives. Now, coming forward and calling a state number and having your name verified in records is not necessarily something they feel capable of doing or even be on their radar? Scott: Why can't the state send them with a mass mailing or call them? Julie: There are some privacy concerns, is what I'm told by the folk over at the Justice for For Victims of Sterilization Foundation that's been formed. Very few people have access to the actual records which are housed at the state department of health and human services. Those addresses in those files are from the 1950s and 60s. So, it would be a tremendous effort to try and track all of the victims down today. And then the foundation worries about doing more harm than good if they send a mailing or make a phone call and the victim suddenly has his or her secret out in the open and be victimized again. Scott: Not all of the people who believe they were sterilized by the Eugenics Board actually were. But clearly they had a procedure done to them. What might have happened? Julie: The Eugenics Board actually kept very detailed records of the sterilizations it was ordering, but we also know there were doctors in the 40s, 50s and 60s who were performing sterilizations sort of off-the-books. Maybe an unwed mother would come to them for care, and a doctor would sort of take it upon himself to encourage her to be sterilized or maybe coerce her, or possibly threaten her, maybe tell her it was reversible when it really wasn't. Whatever the case, researchers suspect there were potentially thousands of these off-the-books sterilizations in North Carolina. And sadly, those people will NOT qualify for compensation from the state because it wasn't (under) the state Eugenics Board. Incidentally, a lot of these unofficial sterilizations were apparently happening in Mecklenburg County. I've got a letter (From research of Kevin Begos, author of forthcoming book about eugenics.) right here from the county director of public welfare in 1957. He's talking about how numerous cases were being referred to doctors for sterilization on a therapeutic bases. These cases are not recorded. That means that there would be no records of them, and if these people had been sterilized they will not qualify for compensation. Scott: So what compensation is being offered to Eugenics Board victims? Julie: The exact number hasn't been settled on quite yet. February is when the governor's task force makes its final recommendation. $20,000 is being talked about as the starting point. I've spoken to several victims who say it's not nearly enough. Scott: And where will the money come from? Julie: The legislature will have to allocate it, which will obviously be a challenge in itself. If all the victims were to come forward who we think are still alive, which is somewhere in the range of 3,000, that would be $60 million to compensate them. If the legislature actually goes through with that, North Carolina would be the first of any of the states that had eugenics laws to actually compensate its victims. Scott: Julie, thanks. Julie Rose's report on Mecklenburg County's role in North Carolina's eugenics program airs Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. on All Things Considered, and Thursday at 7:30 a.m. on Morning Edition.