The living victims of North Carolina's eugenics program came closer Tuesday to receiving compensation when a task force authorized by Gov. Bev Perdue last March voted on its final recommendations.
"We were told that this would be a tough job. I don't think we knew at that time how tough it would be," Dr. Laura Gerald, the task force chair, said.
In keeping with the task force's preliminary recommendations and debates, the task force voted 3-2 in favor of recommending a $50,000 lump sum to verified living victims. With the vote, the stage is being set for a tough battle in the General Assembly as elected officials balance budget issues and victims and family members continue to fight for more.
Between 1929 and 1974, the State of North Carolina sterilized an estimated 7,600 men, women and children, several of which were present in the packed conference room Tuesday. Even after most states ended their programs after World War II, the N.C. Eugenics Board continued to approve sterilizations for often little more than the loosely defined definition of being "feebleminded" and therefore unfit to reproduce.
Since 2000, the State has issued an apology and two similar task force groups have sought to recommend courses of action, but compensation died both times in the General Assembly.
In previous meetings and debates the volunteer task force has received much criticism.
"It has been a difficult and at times very uncomfortable for us, as we have had several victims and their loved ones express disappointment in and even anger toward the task force for the amounts of compensation that we're considering," Gerald said.
Gerald, former journalist Phoebe Zerwick and historian Linwood Davis voted for the $50,000. Only 72 victims have come forward and have been verified as of Dec. 31. The three task force members believed the estimated 1,500—2,000 living victims would not come forward all at once.
"I believe that over a period of the years that will be outlaid in the statue of limitations that the state will be able to achieve a compensation of $50,000 per victim," Gerald said.
Attorney Demetrius Worley Berry and former judge Fetzer Mills recommended $20,000. Mills said she was worried about larger amounts, given the failure of the General Assembly to pass the $20,000 recommended in 2008.
In addition to the $50,000, members unanimously voted for a variety of other recommendations including mental health care, a three-year limit on when victims can come forward to apply for compensation and a public education effort through, among other things, restoring the state's mobile eugenics history exhibit.
The group also recognized the need to further staff and fund the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, which has three employees, for the purpose of administering and overseeing many of the recommendations made.
The task force's final report is due to Perdue Feb. 1, when she will review it and make her recommendations to the legislature.
"Throughout these proceedings, bipartisan support has strengthened. We believe that the governor and legislature should act now to seize the moment," Gerald said in her closing remarks.
The task force hopes the Legislature will act in this year's short session, which begins in May.
Many comments and suggestions have been put forward by victims, family members and concerned citizens, including a proposal brought to Tuesday's meeting by 10 victims and family members, asking for $1 million for living victims and estates of the deceased as well. Many of these comments and suggestions Gerald said would also be included in the report.
"We recognize that there are many other wonderful suggestions out there for recommendation, so again I think it is the hope and sentiment of this task force that our recommendations serve as the floor for action," Gerald said.
Many of the victims and family members present were unhappy with the results, but ready to move on with their lives.
Melissa Hyatt, stepdaughter of eugenics victim Charles Holt, said previous recommendations had felt like a slap in the face. "But today, I see a little bit of relief, especially on my dad's face and that's all that matters," Hyatt said. "Whatever makes him happy, I'm happy."
Elaine Riddick, sterilized at 14 after being raped and giving birth to her only son, would have liked $5 million to $10 million. 'I don't like the recommendation but I have to accept it. I have to accept it because I am ready to go on with my life," Riddick said.
Those involved are optimistic that action will be taken this time around. "It has appeared to me that there is pretty strong bipartisan support and I think what we've recommended is feasible," Zerwick said.
Delores Marks, daughter of a deceased victim and advocate for compensation to the estates of the deceased, recognized the fight is not over.
"We are going to continue to stay optimistic until the end," Marks said. "Until the end."