RALEIGH, N.C. – People sterilized against their will under a discredited North Carolina state program should each be paid $50,000, a task force voted Tuesday, marking the first time a state has moved to compensate victims of a once-common public health practice called eugenics.
The panel recommended that the money go to verified, living victims, including those who are alive now but may die before the lawmakers approve any compensation. The Legislature must still approve any payments.
A task force report last year said 1,500 to 2,000 of those victims were still alive, and the state has verified 72 victims. If the estimate is correct, the payments could total around $100 milllion. Survivors will have three years to apply for payments from the time a measure approving them goes into effect.
Before the vote, chairwoman Laura Gerald said the task force was seeking a balance between the victims' needs and political reality, noting that "compensation has been on the table now for nearly 10 years, but the state has lacked the political will to do anything other than offer an apology."
North Carolina is one of about a half-dozen states to apologize for past eugenics programs, but it is alone in trying to put together a plan to compensate victims.
The panel had discussed amounts between $20,000 and $50,000 per person, and some victims and their family members had reacted angrily to the proposals because they felt the amounts were too low. But on Tuesday, some said they were simply looking forward to the issue being resolved.
"I just want it to be over," said 57-year-old Elaine Riddick, who was sterilized when she was 14 after she gave birth to a son who was the product of rape. "You can't change anything. You just let go and let God."
Riddick, a constant presence at the task force meetings, said she was surprised that the task force recommended $50,000 instead of $20,000.
State officials sterilized more than 7,600 people in North Carolina from 1929 to 1974 under eugenics programs, which at the time were aimed at creating what was seen as a better society by weeding out people such as criminals and mentally disabled people considered undesirable.
Around the country more than 60,000 people were forcibly sterilized under the program.
But North Carolina's program stood out because it ramped up sterilizations after World War II despite associations between eugenics and Nazi Germany. About 70 percent of all North Carolina's sterilizations were performed after the war, peaking in the 1950s, according to state records. The state officially ended the program in 1977.
Most victims were poor, black women deemed unfit to be parents. People as young as 10 were sterilized for reasons as minor as not getting along with schoolmates or being promiscuous.
Although officials obtained consent from patients or their guardians, many did not comprehend what they were signing.
Melissa Hyatt of Kernersville, whose stepfather was sterilized, said the task force "did what was reasonable as far as budgets and economy."
"It's not really about the money," she said. "It's about the suffering and the pain."